Fall 2005, Vol. 8, No. 2

Table of Contents
Fall 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Was New Orleans Asking For It?

The God Squadron

Culture War, Italian Style

Establishment In the Balance

Covering Homosexuality in the Schools

Presbyterians Divest the Jews

Cruisin' For a Scientological Bruisin'


From the Editor: 
Was New Orleans Asking For It?       

by Mark Silk

In the sixth chapter of Genesis, God informs Noah that, with a few exceptions, all living things on earth are about to perish because of their lawlessness and corruption. And although, once the floodwaters have receded, God promises never to do it again, we heirs of the biblical tradition have ever since been led to believe that natural disasters are acts of God sent to punish wrongdoing.

As Patrick Greene of Bay St. Louis, Miss., put it to NPR’s Melissa Block a few days after Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, “The good Lord done put a whuppin’ on us.”

But why, exactly?

Since God’s punitive purposes are not as clear in our world as they tend to be in the Bible, opinions on Katrina have varied. Among the behaviors singled out for blame:

• New Orleans’ practice of “debauch[ing] the penitential season of Lent” via an “orgy of drunkenness, drug abuse and sexual promiscuity” (Rev. John Westcott of the Anglican Church of the Resurrection, Ansonia, Connecticut);

• New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s habitual indulgence of “gambling, sin and wickedness” (Alabama state senator Hank Erwin);

• the California legislature’s approval of same-sex marriage and a California federal court ruling against schoolchildren saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “under God” in it (former Boston Globe columnist and conservative blogger Don Feder);

• the U.S. role in Israel’s expulsion of Jewish settlers from Gaza (the Christian web site Jerusalem Newswire);

• the U.S. invasion of Iraq (Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan).

The evangelical eminence Pat Robertson—perhaps recalling the bad press he and the Rev. Jerry Falwell got for suggesting that God had allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen because of pagans, feminists, gays, and lesbians—only hinted on his television show that Katrina might have had something to do with legalized abortion.

That the wicked merit divine punishment, in this world as well as the next, has always seemed reasonable enough to religious folks. But the idea that the innocent should suffer along with the guilty—including the innumerable animals that didn’t make it into the ark—has long been, for many, a tough pill to swallow. How to explain evil visited upon all flesh?

Classic Christian theology solved the problem, at least for human beings, through the doctrine of original sin, which can be understood as meaning that even those who have done no wrong merit punishment because they are sinful by nature. Thus can the existence of a good and all-powerful God be squared with the existence of terrible pain and suffering.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz gave the name “theodicy” to a different solution. It was that natural disasters are actually part of a larger divine plan that we cannot grasp, but which in fact maximizes the amount of good in creation. If God is good and all-powerful, argued Leibniz, then we must live in the best of all possible worlds.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on November 1,1755, an earthquake all but destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, leaving tens of thousands dead and rendering as many as 17,000 of the city’s 20,000 dwellings uninhabitable. The French philosopher Voltaire reacted by writing a poem that portrayed the Lisbon disaster as a refutation of Leibniz:

“Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All’s well,’ / And contemplate this ruin of a world.” In Voltaire’s view, there was no way to justify such visitations of “dumb nature,” and as for human beings, what was required of them was simply to “suffer, submit in silence, worship, and die.”

Something in human nature, however, resists the idea that bad things happen to people for no reason at all, and among those who, early on, resisted Voltaire’s interpretation of Lisbon was his younger philosophical contemporary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau pointed out that nature had not built the 2,000 six- and seven-storey houses in Lisbon that collapsed, and that many fewer would have died had they not refused to leave the city after the first shock or insisted on returning to their homes to retrieve belongings.

Some historians see in Rousseau’s remarks the beginning of a new conception of the world’s moral economy—one that, on the occasion of natural disasters, evades the impulse to justify God by making humanity the agent of its own suffering. What is at issue, now, is not God’s goodness and power but man’s technical and moral capacity to prevent suffering. Call it anthropodicy.

Ironically, since he was a far greater friend of religion, this makes Rousseau rather than Voltaire the father of the modern secular understanding of evil that has dominated reactions to Katrina. The stumbling efforts of federal and local officials and agencies, the longstanding failure to build adequate levees and to protect wetlands, the man-made phenomenon of global warming that may be bringing more intense weather into being—again and again these have been cited in a “blame game” whose ultimate purpose is to ensure, as God promised Noah, that it never happens again.

By contrast, to the extent that the news media conveyed religious interpretations of the hurricane, it was (like this column) via the self-conscious mode of meta-explanation: not “what was responsible for it?” but “how do we think about what was responsible?”

Bill Tammaeus of the Kansas City Star, Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News, and Charles Parker of the Charleston Post and Courier, for example, rounded up various religious ways of making sense of natural disasters in general and Katrina in particular. Tom Schaeffer of the Wichita Eagle and Tom D’Evelyne of the Christian Science Monitor applied the lessons of a new book, David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

On the other hand, the Philadelphia Inquirer editorially dismissed all efforts to see Katrina as divine retribution as “blasphemy,” and Harvard history professor cum Los Angeles Times columnist Niall Ferguson, embracing the Voltairean perspective that natural disasters “have no moral significance,” adjured his readers, “Don’t call them ‘acts of God.’”

Over at the New York Times, meanwhile, Edward Rothstein traced the supplanting of religious by secular theodicies, while Peter Steinfels lamented Americans’ proclivity for focusing on problem-solving over “wrenching questions that natural and human evils raise about God and the universe.”

Such journalism suggests that religious and secular understandings of Katrina are mutually exclusive. But perhaps there is some common ground.

The Bible teaches (in Deuteronomy 6:6 as well as Matthew 4:17) that we should not “tempt” God, by which it means that people are forbidden to put themselves at risk in such a way that God has to perform a miracle in order to save them. It could be argued that there were many sins of omission and commission along the Gulf Coast that put people at risk in just that way. Nature did not build mansions on the shore or housing projects below sea level.

These days, as the icecaps melt and the tsunamis and hurricanes roll in, it would seem to make sense for us to tempt God as little as possible.


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