Katrina as the Wrath of God




Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of
Idaho ngieruidaho.edu">(ngieruidaho.edu)


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          Protestors outside
the national headquarters of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered
Alliance held signs such as "Thank God for Katrina"
and "New Orleans: City of Sinners and Sodomites." A Mississippian
interviewed on NPR just after Katrina hit exclaimed that "The Good Lord just
done gave us a whuppin’," but the Governor of Texas declared that "By the grace
of God we were saved."  What, for God’s sake, is going on here?


          Why do bad things
happen to good people? Why do the wicked get away with murder and the innocent
die in disasters such as Katrina, September 11,
and a recent landslide in Indonesia where people cried out "God is Great" as
they were being buried alive


Following Jerry Falwell and
Pat Robertson, the protestors above claim to have a pat answer: all of us are
being punished for the sins of a few.  Most of us, however, are repulsed by such
an outrageous and poisonous diagnosis.


          My first philosophy
of religion textbook contained a footnote that showed a long term study of
tornado damage in the Bible Belt.  Far more churches were hit than bars and
houses of prostitution.  If these are "acts of God," what on earth is God trying
to tell us?

The problem of evil has bedeviled
philosophers and theologians for at least three millennia.  It is most
cited reason by those who do not believe in God.  But even most believers
are not willing to admit that God judges us with such horrendous violence. 
This makes God a moral monster.  


In Agatha
Christie’s Then There Were None, one of the characters opines that those
who had been murdered were "struck down of the wrath of God."  Justice Wargrave
was not convinced: "Providence
leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals."  Ironically, it
was Wargrave who planned all the murders!


Let us see if we
can actually reconcile belief in God with the existence of unmitigated evils.  The first thing to
note is that Justice Wargrave is a good Confucian or Stoic in holding a doctrine
of General Providence.  In this view God presides over a world that operates by
natural laws and in which humans govern their own affairs.  Most people don’t
realize that this is the view that Darwin held in the first
edition of the Origin of Species. On the other hand,
the Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam– believe in Special
Providence.  This means that God chooses particular prophets or saviors that
embody divine authority, and then God intervenes in history as an expression of
divine will and judgment.


Philosophers make a
distinction between moral evils and natural evils.  The first is the result of
humans choosing to do good or evil.  For orthodox Christians the prototypical
moral evil was Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God in the Garden of Eden.  All
the other evil in the world started with this fatal decision.
Natural or physical evil is
defined as that which is not the result of any human will: disease (both
physical and mental) and natural disasters.  In a theology in which God is all
powerful, it can only be God who wills these conditions and events to happen. Even though some Christian
legislators in
Oklahoma tried to
change the language of their insurance law, calling natural disasters "acts of
God" is correct Christian theology.  The Oklahoma law makers, however, recognized
the logical implication of such a view: it made God responsible for what all of
us would call evil acts.


I suspect that the Oklahoma
legislators really wanted to say that Satan causes all the evil in the world. 
But this is the heresy of Manicheanism, a view that compromises God’s power by
holding that there is another cosmic power that is the source of evil.  Following the Book of Job,
where it is clear that Satan operates only with the permission and delegated
power of God, Christian theologians have consistently declared that even Satan
is empowered by God. Martin Luther expressed the point
most clearly: "Since God moves and does all, we must take it that he moves and
acts even in Satan and the godless; . . . evil things are done with God himself
setting them in motion." Following some key Old
Testament passages, Luther believed that Satan was the dark side of God, the
wrath of God.


How do Christian theologians
justify God doing evil?  Here is the rationale: God cannot abide the moral evils
committed by humans, so God must show that justice must prevail.  Causing
natural disasters are simply dramatic previews of the Last Judgment, when divine
justice will finally be done.  If God is performing justice, then God is doing
good not evil.  We would call a judge who let all criminals off the hook a bad
judge, wouldn’t we?


Let’s take a closer look at
this solution to the problem of evil.  Something important that has
been forgotten.  When the theologian Augustine discussed the Fall of Adam and
Eve, he made a very interesting concession: "our first parents fell into
disobedience because they were already secretly corrupted." Adam and Eve were already
corrupted because they had "deficient wills."  But who was responsible for their
deficient wills?  They could be only if they had created themselves.  The only
answer is that God created them finite, fragile, and corruptible. 


An engineer friend of mine
was once hired by an auto insurance company to analyze the steel in a broken
drive shaft.  He discovered that it was some of the cheapest steel that Chrysler
could have bought for this crucial part of the chassis.  Now it would have been
absurd for Chrysler’s attorneys to state that the company was responsible for
the positive elements of the steel but not its deficiencies.  At the same time it would be
unfair to demand that the steel manufacturer make sure that there were no
deficiencies at all.  This we could demand solely of an omnipotent Creator.  As
the exclusive manufacturer of all natural things, the orthodox God is fully
responsible for the deficiencies in his products. 


I submit that General
Providence is a much more coherent view if people are going to continue their
belief in God.  (Or Christians could revise the concept
of divine power as explained here.)
The Confucians and Stoics also believed that God is not a
Creator.  Rather, God is coeternal with a universe that operates according to
natural laws and contains rational beings that freely choose their own
destinies. Following Justice Wargrave,
we are solely responsible for our own "convictions and chastisements." Instead
of blaming God, we can focus on a president who refuses to admit to global
warming, who appoints unqualified people to important offices, and who gives tax
cuts to people who don’t need them.


Blame must also be laid at
the feet of a Congress that has for years refused to fund necessary
infrastructure repairs and maintenance.  Finally, Louisiana and New Orleans
government officials are responsible for not being prepared for the big storm
they knew was coming.  And God had nothing to do with it.


Nick Gier taught religion and
philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. 

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