A message for Hurricane Irene in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ
“Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has,” said Boston University Religion scholar Stephen Prothero at CNN’s Belief blog as Hurricane Irene made her way up the East Coast over the weekend.
“When the Great Colonial Hurricane raced up the east coast and lashed New England in August 1635, its 130 mph winds and 21-foot storm surge were almost universally viewed in supernatural rather than natural terms—as a judgment of God on the unfaithful,” he said.
Now, we generally view those (like Pat Robertson) who express such views as “cranks and outliers-relics of a bygone age” because the language of science has largely “routed” the language of theology when it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, said Prothero.
As if right on cue, a campaign spokesperson for presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claimed her boss was joking Sunday when she suggested that Irene was sent to deliver a political punch. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” said Bachmann. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?'”
“Video of Bachmann’s appearance in Florida shows that her remarks were delivered in at least something of a lighthearted way. If the campaign says she meant it as a joke, it’s a believable explanation. That does, though, raise the question of whether it’s appropriate for a presidential candidate and member of Congress to be joking about a major weather event that has already resulted in fatalities and extensive property damage, and isn’t over yet,” Politico’s Alexander Burns chided.
His is a good question six years after Hurricane Katrina unfurled her wrath on the Gulf Coast. The devestated Ninth Ward of New Orleans “still looks like a ghost town,” the Associated Press reported. “Redevelopment has been slow in coming, and the neighborhood has just 5,500 residents — one-third its pre-Katrina population.”
Nevertheless, there is citywide reason to celebrate.
“Entrepreneurship and civic engagement is up, city schools have shown test-score gains and the middle class is growing, according to a new report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a group tracking the city’s recovery. Even crime — still nearly twice the national average — is being held in check and falling, the report said. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is getting closer to finishing $14 billion in work to better shield the city from future hurricanes.”
The world God created, loves, and is working to redeem and restore is a place of beauty and fecundity and of arbitrary brutality and terror,” said West Virginia Wesleyan College Assistant Professor of Religion Debra Dean Murphy at Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog. “We’ve been wounded by organized religion, perhaps, disgusted by its hierarchies and hypocrisies” and decide we can worship God on a mountaintop or a golf course, until an earthquake or hurricane “spoils the romance,” she said.
“The cruel caprice leaves us in stunned silence. But being the chatterers most of us are, we rush to fill the silence, to explain the unexplainable, often with well-worn pieties (‘God has a purpose in all of this’) that can be as cruel as the destruction they mean to rationalize. The biblical tradition asks us to wrestle our whole lives with this paradox.”
As a lifelong Jersey Shore resident I’ve not only wrestled, but have learned to hold these truths in tension. I revel in God’s handiwork and respect it, but worship him alone.
Holy Week, politics, and the stories we live by.
It’s not just a global economy that makes us “one world.” The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan remind us that humankind exists in one fragile and complex bond with the earth and each other.
At his massive rally in Washington, the conservative activist called his audience to restore America’s honor and “turn back to God.” But it wasn’t completely clear which god he was talking about.
The long experiment in American Christianity continues to yield interesting results.
As Duke Divinity School theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” This odd amalgam has been possible because Americans have made faith in God “indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that assured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in.”
Such a view is so commonplace that it goes unquestioned by politicians, pundits, preachers, and the rest of us — whether we’re conservative, moderate, or liberal; high-church, low-church, or no-church.
It is telling that the least controversial aspect of Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial was conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck’s insistent call that America “turn back to God.” His sympathizers welcomed it; many skeptics conceded: what’s the harm?
It’s the peculiar triumph of American Christianity that “God” names a vague, innocuous, content-less deity, one incapable of giving offense. This is why, as Hauerwas observes, America has never been able to produce interesting atheists: “The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny.”
In fact, the American God — the one that Beck (who is a Mormon) and others invoked on Saturday — is a cipher that can be filled in with the kind of content that affirms any number of tenets of our civil religion: American exceptionalism, the sacredness of free markets, honor in war, the American dream.
And if each of us gets to decide who and what God is “for ourselves,” then the Church is unnecessary for the practice of this piety. But that doesn’t seem quite right, so we’ve developed the idea that churches are vital for the maintenance of the democratic institutions to which we pledge our ultimate loyalty. Insofar as church membership/involvement produces good citizens, “organized religion” has done its duty for the state it’s meant to serve.
The problem, of course, is that the American God bears no resemblance to the God revealed through the people of Israel and through the life and death of a first-century Palestinian Jew executed by the most powerful nation on earth. And the American church-as-maker-of-model-citizens looks nothing like the ekklesia of early Christianity — the called-out people who understood themselves to be at odds with an Empire predicated on domination and death. The Pax Romana (like the Pax Americana) demanded ultimate allegiance and tolerated weird, upstart religions only so long as they made no claims on the power of the state.
The ease with which most Christians in America negotiate their relationship with the polis is evidence, Hauerwas says, of how Protestantism is dying of its own success. The experiment, we could say, has worked all too well. Protestant churches in America have “lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.”
I wonder how many people attending the “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday heard the gospel reading from Luke 14 on Sunday? The kind of honor Jesus is interested in “restoring” has nothing to do with patriotic pride or the valorization of death in war and everything to with humility and charity; with serving the poor; with standing alongside those who suffer; that is, with bearing witness — with our very bodies — to an alternative way of being in the world.
In our own context we might say that to take Jesus at his word here would mean that a gathering on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial (or any other space or place) should look less like a Tea Party for the disgruntled and more like a banquet for “the the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13).
This means, then, that Christians are those who see themselves as “alien citizens” of whatever country they live in. Which doesn’t mean that Christians must necessarily strike a hostile pose; it’s certainly possible — even desirable — to love one’s country. But Christians are those who struggle and hope to believe in a God who has confronted death and the death-dealing ways of the world and the death-dealing ways in ourselves. And so we register our inability to be at home in a polis where greed and waste and war are taken to be inescapable and necessary — where, indeed, such sins are twisted into virtues.
For all the sincerity on display at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, and amongst the large throngs of proud Americans, this God and these Christians were hard to spot.
Photo by Luke X. Martin from Wikipedia.
In the immigration debate, some think children are being used as instruments to gain access to this nation’s benefits, while others see them as a reminder that, in God’s kingdom, the first shall be last.