Natural Disasters: Judgment or Grace?

A few weeks ago, we were treated to a minor onslaught of media coverage about a few outspoken Christians who claimed Superstorm Sandy was an act of judgment from God. The specific target of God’s judgment wasn’t quite clear–it differed, depending on who was making the accusation.

It’s interesting that no one seemed to blame the people of Eastern Canada for incurring God’s wrath–or, for that matter, people on Caribbean islands like Jamaica, where 70 percent of residents lost electricity; the Dominican Republic; The Bahamas; or Haiti, already devastated and struggling to recover from a massive 2010 earthquake.

Apparently, according to these so-called prophets, God manufactured this storm to inflict punishment on a specific group of people in the Eastern United States and didn’t care who else got in its way. The underlying assumption was that God is a respecter of nations and somehow was threatened by the upcoming election, specific initiatives going before voters, or a general decline in religiosity.

It’s curious that this kind of talk–at least on a significant scale–occurs in connection only with certain disasters and certain groups of people. For example, I haven’t heard anyone accuse drought-stricken Midwestern farmers, desperate for rain, of licentious living deserving of God’s judgment. Or the people of southeastern Romania of incurring God’s wrath in the form of heavy rainfall and flooding. And what did the people of the mobile home park in Woodward, Oklahoma, do to bring a deadly tornado upon their heads back in April?

While this is not a mainstream Christian view, and most people don’t point to specific events and call them acts of judgment targeted at specific groups, many do try to make sense of these events as acts of God motivated by anger. Even though Jesus specifically teaches against this kind of thinking (John 9:3; Luke 13:1-5), it’s interesting that this viewpoint seems to have crept partway into our response to disasters and tragedies–but mostly just the ones that happen to people we’ve decided deserve God’s attention. We tend to phrase it more in terms of God withholding or removing “his blessing” from us. And in recent years we seem to have decided the ones most deserving of God’s judgment are, well us. Or at least certain ones among us.

Since Sept 11, 2001, our own disasters, tragedies, and human discord feel elevated, riskier, scarier, more terrifying. Perhaps as a society, we feel vulnerable in a way most of us hadn’t before. Perhaps for some of us, the natural reaction is to spiritualize our fear and blame it on one another.

This kind of thinking is flawed and exposes a real problem and the true source of our anxiety–the longstanding and mistaken belief that we are somehow special. That because we are rich, powerful, innovative, and religious, we should be safe.

These events that shake us are natural consequences of life in this world–this world has natural laws (like gravity) and you pay if you break them (ouch). It has natural forces over which we are completely powerless. Some are natural disasters, others are disasters of our own making. We have high populations living in vulnerable places. Disastrous and unyielding human conflicts. Gross inequity in housing. An epidemic of self-interest. Billions of people who try to do the right thing and rarely succeed. This is life on earth.

For most of human history, people have been well-acquainted with the kind of world we live in. They have been close to death’s constant threat, and while grieved, not necessarily surprised when it took people they loved. But we expect something different. We have convinced ourselves, over time, that we can be safe. That we have mastered our world. That if we’re good enough or rich enough, we can take care of ourselves.

Our newfound disquiet itself is a natural consequence of our arrogance at believing we were specially blessed somehow–in both a religious and a secular way. We thought we were not vulnerable. We’ve trusted in ourselves. We’ve thought we could live as we pleased. We were wrong.

In that light, from my perspective, these painful reminders of reality look less like judgment and more like grace–providing us opportunities to wake up to what has been true all along. We are fragile, and we can’t make ourselves impervious to the forces of nature or the consequences of human depravity. May our pain teach us to let go of what we’ve been clinging to–of what we cannot keep.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.