08 September 2011

"Every kind of sickness and disaster"

I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, "Are you going to start listening to me here?" Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.
U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, campaigning to become the Republican presidential candidate, made these comments in a campaign stop in Florida. Later, she explained that she was joking, and still later, that her words about God were a metaphor.

I don't know how seriously to take either of her explanations. Linking either a frustrated God or the "roaring" American people to fatal calamities is a strange form of humor; and it's hard to understand exactly what the metaphor consists of, and what it's pointing to. But the Face the Nation interview in which the "metaphor" explanation came up was fascinating for another reason--host Bob Schieffer's question, "Do you believe God uses weather to send people messages?"

Bachmann utterly avoids the question. My guess is that, as someone who takes the Bible seriously, she very much does believe this, but she also knows that to say so directly to a broad audience would be risky. Much of the audience would probably be predisposed to label anyone saying "yes" to Schieffer's question as totally on the fringe. The discussions around Ryan Lizza's article on Bachmann, "Leap of Faith," reveal how little mutual understanding there is between biblical believers and secular commentators. (Here's a sample of the discussion.) Furthermore, it sometimes serves politicians in both camps to pretend that the gap is even larger than it really is, in order to demonize their opponents--sometimes literally.

I know I'll never be on Face the Nation--certainly not as a political candidate!--but the whole thing made me wonder how I'd answer Bob Schieffer's question. I did a quick survey of biblical disasters as expressions of God, and I come to a complicated conclusion:

1) God does "use weather" and other calamities "to send people messages"--at least in biblically recorded history.

2) However, God has not licensed today's politicians and commentators to link Hurricane Irene, the East Coast earthquake, the 2004 tsunami (cited at the 2009 sessions of Northwest Yearly Meeting), the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (cited by, among many others, by Pat Robertson and Patriarch Kirill) as expressions of God.

First of all, the more conservative your philosophy of Scripture is, the more reluctant you ought to be to assert what God is saying in any natural event not recorded in Scripture. Anything beyond that is "interpretation," normally not permitted to a literalist. There are many instances in the Bible of prophets foretelling disasters, but they are directly linked to the behavior of people in the hearing of the prophets. The Hebrew nation, on the eve of the crossing into Canaan, are warned (Deuteronomy 28:58-61):
If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the LORD your God—the LORD will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. The LORD will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. [context]
These warnings are echoed by generation after generation of prophets, reminding their audiences of the consequences of obstinately ignoring God. After the predicted disasters strike, they plead with their audiences to repent, and plead with God to give the nation another chance.

The specific issues that grieve God are very clear: large-scale abandonment of faith in favor of idolatry, immorality, and unjust treatment of poor people and foreigners. It would take a very, um, liberal interpretation of these warnings to make them cover budget deficits--but if they did, wouldn't they be aimed at people unwilling to pay taxes to serve the common good just as much as at governments spending more than the people had contributed? Rarely, if ever, do we see biblical disaster warnings directed against the advocates of specific policies; they are broadly directed at the whole nation that has (often with the exception of faithful remnants) completely abandoned their covenant faith. Those nations who are outside the covenant are not threatened at all with biblical disasters unless they have mistreated Israel.

(The exception to the this-generation horizon of most biblical prophecy concerning disasters are the warnings recorded about the end times--but these mostly refer to tyranny and combat rather than weather or natural disasters.)

Thus, the safest, most conservative interpretation of these biblical linkages between prophecy and disaster is that they are exactly that: confined to the times and places of the Bible, not a pattern that any latter-day politician or television personality can simply claim by extension for his or her own use. The authorized spokespeople for God's warnings are the prophets, who are accountable to God and to other prophets. With the important exception of Moses, none of the prophets who issue disaster warnings are people of power, or people seeking power. In the ebb and flow of their relationships with the political leaders of their time, they do sometimes gain influence, but they remain fiercely independent of those leaders.

This does not mean that God cannot do today what God did in biblical times, but to extend the patterns and criteria of biblical prophecy (especially prophecies of disaster) is very risky, and should be done with the modest admission that nothing in the Bible is a 100% noncontroversial stamp of approval on present-day prophecy. Whom can we name, among today's disaster commentators, as being worthy inheritors of the mantle of those biblical prophets? Who speaks with tears in their eyes, pleading with their whole nation to abandon idolatry and treat widows, orphans, and immigrants with justice--all with no personal agenda?

And who is the legitimate audience for today's prophets? The biblical prophets addressed a nation (and its neighbors) formed by a common history. The nation of Israel was founded as a covenant community, bound to God by promises. Is the USA (or the planet) bound to the same blessings and curses listed by Moses for that original community? Or is that original nation (and its Christian extension) still bound by that covenant to continue extending God's blessings to the world as a whole? Rather than threatening others with earthquakes and hurricanes, or blaming others for the disasters they've just experienced, shouldn't our focus be on the evangelism and ethical testimonies that make those blessings real?

The hero-worshipper in me sometimes wishes for a powerful prophet to arise, explain our times and our disasters, and tell us all what's what. But as far as I'm concerned, the coming of Jesus completely restructured the way prophecy works. Jesus put an end to the historic cycles of messianic heroes and leaders; he's the ultimate and sufficient reconciler between us and God, rendering all gatekeepers and hierarchs obsolete:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:17-21; context; my emphases.]
Today's prophets are in our churches and meetings. You might be one of them. I'd tell Bob Schieffer that if these confirmed and accountable prophets tell me that God has spoken through the weather, I'll take them seriously--but, based on the biblical record, their message is unlikely to serve the interests of anyone running these days for high political office.

Friday PS: A couple of other points: God can act through weather that isn't disastrous as well. Jonah was thrown from the boat in weather that could have been disastrous had he not been honest with the sailors. Jesus calmed several storms.

The meteorological or seismic wrath of God is a huge subject unto itself, with centuries of commentary to help us understand (or not) collective punishment vs the justice and mercy of God. My point here is that is that it is not at all strange for a Christian to believe that God speaks to us through weather, but this belief is not a license to identify politically convenient present-day targets as objects of God's speech. That job, if it exists at all, goes to genuine prophets, not self-anointed celebrities.

"Defining 'cutting-edge' in an upside-down kingdom." ... From Lausanne World Pulse, September issue.
When we decided on the theme for this issue, "Women on the Cutting Edge of Missions," we were focusing on "typical" images of influential, wise, creative women who are greatly impacting missions and evangelism today. On a secular level, we would look to the equivalent of Angela Merkel, Ho Ching, or Condoleezza Rice. On the Christian historical level, we would look to Priscilla, Clare, Catherine Booth, or Mother Teresa.

But as you will read in this issue, "cutting edge" has various facets, the least of which is the typical definition. We must continually come back to the reality that we are God's workers in an upside-down field. As our authors remind us, women who are indeed on the cutting edge of missions are often nameless to most and can easily go faceless in a crowd of those who are perceived to be "the powerful."
"Christianity is really so bloody simple!"

"The language of the left: rejecting relativism and naming bad theology." Garrett FitzGerald: "Progressives need to own up to the simple fact that there is such a thing as bad theology."

"Forgive everyone for everything." --Be sure to read the comments, too.

"Beautiful music at Ground Zero."

The New York Times's Bill Keller reflects on the 9/11 decade and "unfinished business."

PDF file: "Lopping Off a Limb? Indiana Yearly Meeting’s Troubled Relationship With West Richmond Monthly Meeting," in Quaker Theology's "Special Preview Edition." Stephen Angell comments on Indiana Yearly Meeting's relationship with West Richmond Friends Meeting, and the difficult decisions facing the Yearly Meeting this fall.

Charlie Musselwhite plays guitar at the Will Shade gravestone benefit concert.


Mindful Searcher said...

My faith does not permit me to believe that God sends such destructive forces. God is the source of such destruction on in the sense that the cycle of natural events that are part of Creation continue as God intended, and it is my deep belief that God would only intervene in that natural cycle in the most extreme circumstances. The first term of President Obama or the US national debt is not one of those extreme circumstances.

Nancy Thomas said...

Your essay helps clarify some issues for me, especially the biblical description of a prophet, in contrast to current political figures who would sound prophetic. Concerning God and natural disasters, I also wrestle with our role as pray-ers, and what difference it might make when, say, an Irene level hurricane is predicted. The spiritual side of cause-and-effect is complex, with no room for the arrogance of a would-be prophet or intercessor.

Thanks again for the thoughtfulness and timeliness of your reflections.

Ricardo said...

When it comes to natural disasters and Divine signs I love to remind myself that Las Vegas must be doing something right: No Tsunamis, no floods, no earthquakes.