In the wake of Sunday’s tornadoes, which ravished several Central Illinois communities, Pastor Charlie Dean takes on toxic interpretations of God’s role in tragedy.
On Sunday a storm ripped through Central Illinois leaving a wake of destruction in its path. Homes in several communities were destroyed by tornados. The hardest hit community was the quiet town of Washington that was decimated by an EF4 tornado, unleashing winds of up to 190 m.p.h.
Of course, in the wake of the destruction we search for answers to hard questions: Why this house and not the other? Why this town and not the next? And in response to hard questions, Christians are saying things that are at best trite and at worst insidious. Let me address some of the things I’ve heard in the last couple of days:
“The tornado came at a time where all the Christian-folk were in church. See, God was protecting his people.” I’ve heard several variations of this statement but if you push on it just a little bit, it doesn’t even begin to stand up to scrutiny. To be more accurate, one should say “all the Christian-folk who go to church at 11pm and didn’t catch the early or Saturday night service, or who were well enough to go to church that daywere in church.“ And this says nothing about the people of Indiana who got the same storm & their own tornadoes later in the afternoon. Frankly, I think this God-likes-Christians-more-than-everyone-else thinking is simply tribalism and is a gross misunderstanding of the Good News that God loves everyone equally.
In response to why tragedies happen, “it’s all because of Adam & Eve’s sin.” Huh? The person saying this apparently believes that in the Garden of Eden there were no earthquakes, hurricanes, seasons, etc. I’m sorry, this just doesn’t make any sense to me. A tornado is amoral. It happens when a cold air mass collides with a warm air mass. It’s just as natural as a sunny day, a light rain shower, a full moon and a beautiful snow. The tragedy is not that there was a tornado. The tragedy is that there was a town in the path of a tornado.
“God sent this to unify the communities of Central Illinois.” Does God want communities to do good for each other? Absolutely, without question. Does God destroy communities in order for them to do so. I don’t think so. Does God use the raw, ugly material of life to call his people to do good? A thousand times yes. I’m just dubious of “God sent this…” language.
“God sent the tornado as a judgment on the rich.” Yup. Someone actually said this to a friend of mine. And yes, there are places in the Bible you can point and say, “see, God sends natural tragedies.” But first, the prophets are often speaking in hyperbole and we need to make sure we disentangle the exegetical issues. Furthermore, prophets claim to be working out of a knowledge given to them directly by God. If we’re going to declare a natural disaster as God’s judgment, we ought to make clear that we’ve heard directly from God. Otherwise, we’re simply projecting our own issues onto God. The problem with this kind of line of thinking is that we arbitrarily choose a sin that we think thousands of people are collectively guilty of, and we arbitrarily decided that God is angered about this particular sin more than he’s angered about my sins.
To my dear friends, neighbors, fellow congregants in Washington, Pekin & East Peoria who stand at the edge of rubble piles holding back your tears:
I don’t believe for one second that God was out to get you on Sunday afternoon. I don’t believe God was judging you. I believe nature happened. The weather was the optimal condition and houses were in the way. I don’t believe God sits in heaven playing with us in such sadistic ways. God did not put his finger down and wipe out your home. Nor do I believe that God was saving some people and neglecting some to suffer. Last I checked everyone – Christian or not – whose home was in the path lost. I do not believe God plays a cosmic games of “duck, duck, duck cancer/tornado/hurricane,” arbitrarily dishing out human tragedies.
What I do believe —with every fiber of my being— is that in our tragedies God weeps with us. Just like Jesus stood at the grave of his friend Lazarus and wept. And in these moments – like every moment of every day – God is calling us to do good to the people around us – to be God’s agents in the world, to be God’s hands, to face the darkness head on, refusing to explain it away or minimize the suffering with tired clichés. Every day people are losing homes, dying of cancer, losing jobs. Every day there are opportunities to do good if we only open our eyes and seek out the dark place.