Perhaps it is inevitable that people will try to understand why a disaster like hurricane Katrina happened. The “why” question seems to be part of human nature. Whenever tragedy strikes (whether personal or global) people want to know why. Is it something I did or failed to do? Was there some grand purpose behind the events?
This sort of interpretation happened in connection with 9/11 (I recall hearing a sermon that understood the events as God’s punishment on the U.S. for its economic and foreign policies), the Tsunami (Some saw it as God’s judgment on the pagan religions of the area), and is already beginning to happen in connection with Katrina — and not just by conservative religious groups. The BBC ran a story entitled, “New Orleans: Nature’s revenge?” and others have blamed it on global warming.
Of course, the most troubling interpretations do tend to come from the extreme end of the spectrum. There are reports of an email circulating from an anti-abortion group that implies that the hurricane is God’s judgment on Louisiana and New Orleans for their tolerance of abortion clinics. The Repent America website suggests that the destruction is God’s judgment on a wicked city that tolerated and promoted evil such as “Southern Decadence”, an annual homosexual celebration, and yearly Mardi Gras parties (via Abnormal Interests). Joining these fundamentalist Christian interpretations are some conservative Jewish perspectives (here and here) that see a connection to Israeli disengagement in Gaza and Katrina. One even goes so far to call Katrina the “fist of God” that is meting out “His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel” [though its support of disengagement] (via Kesher Talk). It would be easy to expand this list with extremist Islamic groups and many others.
The connection between “natural” disasters and God’s judgment is found in many parts of the Bible. In fact, in the ancient world virtually all disasters — whether “natural” disasters like flood, famine, and pestilence, as well as human disasters like military defeat — were interpreted as signs of divine favour or disfavour. In the Hebrew Bible God punished the faithlessness of ancient Israel with foreign oppressors throughout the book of Judges, he brought famine on the land of ancient Israel when they followed Baal in 1Kings 17 — and it would be easy to multiply examples.
This correlation between human deed and divine consequence is part of the fabric of the way ancients viewed the world — it is often called “retribution theology.” The writer of the book of Proverbs expressed it this way: “No harm befalls the righteous, But the wicked are filled with trouble” (Prov 12:21) or “Adversity pursues sinners, But the righteous will be rewarded with prosperity” (Prov 13:21). This view also undergirds the Israelite view of history, being found in varying degrees in both the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua through 2 Kings) and Chronicles. So, for example, the Deuteronomistic Historian understood the destruction of the northern kingdom and the Babylonian exile as God’s response to ancient Israel’s unfaithfulness. This theology maintains that Yahweh has set up this connection between deed and consequence, or act and result, and Yahweh watches over this reality.
But this is not the only voice from the Hebrew Bible on this topic. There is another tradition that questions and, in fact, dismantles once and for all, a simplistic interpretation of the connection between deed and consequence. This skeptical tradition is found in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
The book of Job questions human ability to discern the connection between deed and consequence. Job is presented as the “poster boy” for retribution theology. From his description early on in the book, he is presented as twice as good as Noah and as one truly blessed by God. Then everything is taken away from him through a series of paradigmatic events (note that both “natural” disaster and human disaster befalls our poster boy), even though he did absolutely nothing wrong. When his so-called friends come, after seven days of silence, they begin to question Job’s integrity since, according to their worldview, if you suffer, you must have done something wrong. The book of Job is important not so much because it answers the age-old question of suffering (it really doesn’t — except to qualify traditional retribution theology that not all suffering is due to sin). It is important because it reminds humanity of our epistemological limitations — we don’t know all the ins and outs of God’s world. That is the entire point of God’s biology lesson for Job in chapters 38-42: If Job can’t begin to understand the natural world around him, then how does he expect to understand the divine?
The book of Ecclesiastes takes the argument further and demonstrates that when you look at life, it becomes patently clear that a simplistic connection between deed and consequence is not borne out by human experience: “There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is hebel (Eccl 8:14). This reality is one of the major reasons why the author of Ecclesiastes proclaims that all is hebel, absurd, not the way it is supposed to be. But the author of Ecclesiastes (or his editor) maintains that one day every human deed will be taken into account (12:14). But in the here and now — “life under the sun” — it is not possible to draw simple connections.
When it comes right down to it, the God of the Bible is neither accessible to nor always understandable by humanity when it comes to divine actions and the connection between deed and consequence. Furthermore, the God of the Bible is not obligated to guarantee harmony in human existence. In this fallen world bad things will happen to good people, and vice versa. Perhaps even more astounding is the continual grace that God extends to all people despite our depravity.
What this means in connection to hurricane Katrina and the mounting devastation in its wake, is that we should refrain from trying to explain it. We can affirm that God is active in the world. We can affirm that the world in which we live is radically fallen, that it is not the way it is supposed to be. Beyond these two affirmation, I believe we have to be very careful in our interpretations of “natural” disasters and tragedies. And we should resist easy interpretations and glib pronouncements of God’s judgment. We are not prophets nor apostles.
A Christian response to this horrendous disaster is to pray for those affected and do whatever is in our means to help the relief effort. In this regard, I would encourage all who feel so called to donate to a reputable relief organization. Canadians can donate to the World Vision Hurricane Katrina response by calling 1 (800) 268-5528 or donating online here, or to the Canadian Red Cross by going here.
(Ben Witherington also has a thought-provoking post on the hurricane here, even though he may be surprised to know that the small silent voice in 1 Kings 19:11-13 may in fact be better understood as a thundrous voice)