Acts of ...?

I found these two statements juxtaposed in a Sept. 2nd New York Times article about New Orleans. Is it just me, or is the second statement an instance of profoundly, and significantly, poor theology? Here are the statements: "If you know that terror is approaching in terms of hurricanes, and you've already seen the damage they've done in Florida and elsewhere, what in God's name were you thinking?" said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "I think a lot of it has to do with race and class. The people affected were largely poor people. Poor, black people." ... "Everything is God's will," said Charles Steele Jr., the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. "But there's a certain amount of common sense that God gives to individuals to prepare for certain things." Alright, all of you theology students out there.... How do we square up this stuff theologically? God allows but doesn't "will" bad things? After 9/11, I think we could use the "free will of bad people" argument. But this seems like the "unfortunate circumstances of poor people"--that seems harder to square up with "God's will".... Help me out here.


Blogger Seth said...

When I think of people saying everything is 'God's Will' I keep thinking you have to be careful what you mean by that.

To me, will usually represents something you 'want' to happen and we need to remember that God isn't a cruel bastard.

9/05/2005 8:36 AM  
Blogger John McCollum said...

I think that it would be more precise to say "Everything that happens was anticipated and permitted by God."

If everything that happens is truly God's will, then Jesus' prayer (on earth as it is in heaven) is moot.

The atheist/agnostic looks at a situation like this and says "If God were really powerful enough to prevent this, and he didn't he's evil and cruel. A good God does not exist." The deist says, "It's possible that God 'could' have prevented this, but he doesn't intervene directly in human affairs -- it's just not his thang."

I think that God DOES intervene miraculously when it suits him, but that he created a profoundly 'real' world that operates largely under real physical principles. We're not automatons, we're relatively free individuals. If we jump off a building, we're most likely going to get hurt. Or, in this case, if we don't get out of a drowning city, we're likely to be drowned.

Certain kinds of air meet certain other kinds of air and we get a hurricane. Could God prevent it? Yes. Has God prevented these things? Probably. Has God ever sent a storm to punish people? Yes. Should any of this change what our reaction to the storm and its victims? Don't think so.

9/06/2005 10:03 AM  
Blogger Seth said...

Great comments John. I think it sums up the 'right' position very well.

"Everything that happens was anticipated and permitted by God."

That was a particularly good way to explain things... like I said, the word 'will' to me communicates to much 'approval' in a situation like this.

9/06/2005 8:38 PM  
Blogger e said...

John and Seth--
Good comments. I think I can go with the "everything that happens..." but the anticipated? Hmmmmm.... Where does that leave free will? If we assume God sees everything as a moment, where as we experience time on a line, then we run into the problem not that God doesn't know but that God has bigger things in mind than our personal well-being. We could talk about this more, if you want.

My real issue with these comments back to back is the implicit...something -ism...racism, classism?...in the second comment when juxtaposed with the first. It seems like the point is--it's your own damn fault that you were killed in the aftermath of the hurricane. But it might have been God's will that you were killed.

From a de-personalized perspective, I don't think that's necessarily a problem. We might be able to say this abstractly, theologically.

But I didn't hear many people saying this after 9/11 and I'm wondering if that had less to do with the nature of the events and more to do with the who did the killing and who did the dying. We feel comfortable blaming Arabs for the proximal effect of crashing planes into buildings. Do we then blame God for Katrina? Do we blame a gust of wind off the coast of Africa? Do we blame the governments of Louisiana and the USA for not shoring up the levies?

I'm not sure how to interpret statements that seem to be blanket theological ones that then appear to change based on the circumstances.

9/07/2005 5:50 AM  
Blogger John McCollum said...

I can't speak for others, but I said the same thing after 9/11.

I think the Bible is clear that God knows the past, present and future. I think the Bible is also clear that man has (limited) free will.

I don't see the two being mutually exclusive. Nor do I see them being abstractly theological. The glass is far too dark for us to see what God is doing in any specific circumstance, and we're simply incapable of creating a holistic model of cause and effect from the human/environmental/political side of the equation.

It seems to me that in any crisis there are direct causes, aggravating factors, mitigating factors, oppressors, victims-at-fault and innocent bystanders. It's true that there are racists/classists willing to place all of the blame on one group. But I strenuously object to the notion that accurately expressing the 'facts of life' is inherently bigoted.

God could have created a world where angels cushioned every blow; wherein we could walk in front of an oncoming car and not get hurt, and no one could ever make stupid or sinful mistakes, and everyone was forced to love one another. But what good would that do? What would be the purpose of worship?

If I could program or force my wife to love me, her love would be meaningless. Her admiration, devotion and service to me would be slavery.

Thank God that he does intervene directly to shield us from the FULL force of our sins on a daily basis. Thank God for his occasional miracles. Thank God that he promises to work all things together for our good. All things, even our mistakes.

9/07/2005 9:37 AM  
Blogger e said...

John-- Sorry. I didn't mean to imply that I was defending the idea that God can't know the past, present, or future, that human free will and God's foreknowledge are mutually exclusive, or that we cannot talk about pain and death being assigned to one particular group of people without being racist or classist.

I think I was merely trying to point out that we have to tread lightly when we say things about God's will. I think this for two reasons (that I can think of at the moment):
1. As you put it, we just can't say what it is God is up to at a given moment with any accuracy. This seems like the theological point.
2. Because of #1, we shouldn't jump into a conversation about God's will--even God's permission--when someone has suffered terribly. This might just be a point about sensitivity. To illustrate, I just think it's callous to say something like "God allowed this to happen for some other purpose" to someone who has lost a loved one. Certainly this may be true. But it seems to fall into the same trap as Job's accusers--sometimes the honest thing isn't the loving thing or even the right thing, strictly speaking.

Better to weep with those who weep than to attempt to explain things theologically.

(And, just to be clear, I am not directing these comments toward anything that you said/are saying. I just thought that this Times article exhibited was an instance of "whoa, that might be 'right' but it shouldn't be said that way or at this time."

9/07/2005 11:08 PM  
Blogger John McCollum said...


I agree. Part of the problem with the national debate on this issue is the ubiquitous "competing pundits" news format.

Pundit A says, "There's no one to blame for this," so we have to find a Pundit B who says, "It's them homos' fault." And it degenerates from there.

That style of discourse continues around the watercooler, in the break room and at the coffee shop. Oh, and don't forget the blogs.

As I'm typing this, the guy on the news is announcing that the gov't has just ordered 25,000 body bags to be sent to New Orleans.

Ugh. Weep with those who mourn.

9/08/2005 6:04 AM  
Blogger e said...

Yeah, I'm afraid your take on punditry is probably right.

And, although this is an entirely different can of worms to open, because of that I've stopped watching news or reading newspapers entirely. Granted, part of that is simply that I don't have time to do that. But part of me wonders what people really can say in these formats that is really worth saying.

It seems like thoughtfulness gets chucked out the window in favor of quick, witty responses.

In the case of New Orleans, I have to remember the famous quote by Elie Wiesel:
"Anything that can be said about God must be said over a pit of dead babies." Or in this case, 25,000 body bags in the bayoo heat.

These things should halt our all-too-natural hastiness.

9/08/2005 12:09 PM  

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