Monday, March 5, 2012

Who Is To Blame?


Last week, after a deadly tornado struck Harrisburg, Illinois, I wrote this post in which I noted that Pat Robertson and John Piper were, to that point, silent about  the hows and whys of this natural disaster. Robertson had previously said that a 2010 earthquake struck Haiti because the Haitians had made “a pact with the devil.” Piper had said that a 2009 tornado in Minneapolis was sent by God as a “warning” to the ELCA about the ordination of partnered gay clergy.  I speculated that the two were silent about the Harrisburg tornado because the people of Harrisburg are too much like their constituencies.

It is easy to demonize those with whom we disagree. It is easy to say “Aha! God sent this disaster to you as a sign of his judgment.” But It is a different matter when disasters strike those who are just like us.

Since my blogpost, more tornadoes have devastated the American Midwest, and today both Piper and Robertson weighed in on the subject. Their responses are almost diametrically opposed and quite revealing.

This time around, Pat Robertson says that God doesn’t send disasters against wrongdoers. Tornadoes are naturally occurring events. Still, Robertson tends to blame the victims. “Why do you build houses,” he asks, “in a place where tornadoes are apt to happen.” He also says “Don’t blame God for doing something foolish.” He also suggests that more prayer might have provoked God to intervene, stilling the cyclonic storms.

Piper takes a very different approach. He raises the question, “Why Henryville, and not Hollywood?” Why were small Midwestern towns destroyed and the urban centers of libertine sinfulness spared? Piper’s answer is a resounding shrug. God sent the tornadoes, but God’s will is inscrutable.

Piper’s reply evidences what I call the Monotheist’s Dilemma. If  there is only one God, then that God is responsible for both weal and woe. Piper’s respect for God’s sovereignty is in perfect keeping with his neo-Calvinist theology. Wrestling with the question of why the righteous sometimes suffer and the evildoers sometimes prosper, Piper’s answer is that we really cannot know. I might wish he had been as circumspect in his remarks about the Minneapolis tornado in 2009.

So, Pat Robertson blames the victims and John Piper blames God. In the end, I think it is safe to say that both Robertson and Piper have taken softer positions than they did previously. Neither of them is quite so ready to pinpoint the reason for these tornados as God’s judgment against specific people for a specific cause.

It’s easy to see God’s wrath in a disaster that strikes those whom we think are not like ourselves. When the victims of a disaster look just like us, it is a different matter.

I'm not ready to blame either God or the victims. This week’s tornadoes provide us once again with an opportunity to care for our neighbors in their need. Please give to a reputable relief agency. If you don’t have another relief agency in mind, I can recommend Lutheran Disaster Response.

The illustration for this blogpost is William Blake’s depiction of God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind. Trying to think of the right descriptor for John Piper’s theology, I noodled around terms like “neo-Calvinist” and “hyper-Calvinist” and “super-Calvinist” until I came up with “Super-neo-Calvinistic-expalidocious.” Now I can’t get it out of my head.



  1. Good morning, Brant!

    These days, I find myself squirming a bit whenever I hear anyone - including myself! - claiming to know God's mind, to say God did this or that for this or that reason... seems a bit presumptuous. Whether you say God sent tornadoes as judgment - or He didn't... how can any of us really know for sure? I find myself always qualifying such claims - either way - with, "Maybe... maybe not."

    It seems the best we can do is remember that when we make such statements what we are saying is, "God, as I have come to know him..."

    That said, my perspective would be that natural disasters are the result of sin, they are the world knocked off kilter by sin brought into God's perfect creation by us - all of us. So in one way, they ARE a judgment for sin. But then, when innocent people suffer, that too makes clear the effect of sin. Sin - evil - wouldn't be evil if only those who deserved it suffered the consequences of it. That would be justice.

    The suffering of good people in natural disasters makes clear - to me anyway! - just how terrible sin is.

    But then, clearly there are Biblical examples of God sending disasters as judgment.

    So I am with you - I don't know exactly why God does the things He does. But I DO trust that the God I know is perfectly loving and perfectly just, and everything He does flows from that.

    ...and, more importantly, just as you say, these disasters are a perfect opportunity for us who know God's love to make that love REAL in the world.

  2. Hi StoryGuy!

    If, when you say that tornadoes are the result of sin, you mean that they are a sign that we live in a fallen and imperfect world (and I think this is what you mean) then I agree with you.

    John Piper's view presents God as capricious, angry and possibly insane.

    Robertson's remarks are a clear example of blaming the victim. It's your own fault for living where tornadoes happen, he says? Natural disasters happen everywhere. Even if we could find a disaster-free zone to live in, there is always the possibility that a tower will fall on us, or we might get hit by a bus.

    Most disturbing to me, and the point I hoped to make in this blogpost, is the inconsistency in both Piper's and Robertson's views. They are both prepared to say that God directs disasters against narrowly focused targets when it suits their own ideological purposes. How convenient.

    In August 2009, Piper said that God used a tornado as a warning against the ELCA for its pro-homosexual stance. The estimable Suzanne McCarthy pointed out that the very next day a tornado in Ontario killed an 11 year old boy. Piper never did address this event. He never did explain what that boy had done to so offend God.

    I don't believe for a second that God sends disasters as judgments against evildoers. I think I know where God is in those disasters, though. God is in the midst of the disaster, among the people, suffering with those who suffer, dying with those who die, mourning with those who mourn....And God is in the relief efforts, sending love in the form of material aid.

    That's what the cross of Christ means.

    1. Good morning, Brant!

      Thanks for the reply! Just for the record, I generally agree with what you are saying!

      I am not sure, though, I would say tornadoes are a "sign" we live in a fallen world, so much as I would say they are the consequence of a fallen world. My belief is that when we brought sin into the world - disobedience, disorder... basically chaos! - it affected everything, that there is a spiritual dimension to sin whose effects are far, far reaching. It wasn't so much God knocking things out of whack to punish us as it was that's just what sin does. But that's just me.

      But then, maybe it WAS God who did it, as a very big object lesson.

      I guess I can't really say!

      Which was basically my point. The thing about Piper and Robertson that bothers me most is the arrogance of claiming to know God's mind. THEY know what God is doing - and they are going to tell us, just in case we don't!

      But when I agree with you in believing that God didn't send a tornado to punish some particular sinner, I don't want to make the exact same mistake of claiming to know God's mind.

      That was really my main point!

      I can't say for certain that God DIDN'T send a tornado for a particular purpose.

      But I totally agree with you, what really matters is that when "bad" stuff happens, we become the love of Jesus - we become the hands and feet of Jesus, showing His love and care and compassion to those in need. A lesson I am just beginning to learn! (Sinner that I am!)