Francis X. Clooney, S.J.January 23, 2010

Cambridge, MA. I have never had great sympathy for Pat Robertson and his evangelical slant on the Gospel and Christian life. In part, it is a matter of cultural differences — I am a Jesuit, in Cambridge, at Harvard, after all — and also a matter of what seems to be a rather different experience of what Christianity and the Gospel mean. For the most part, I share everyone’s disappointment, even offense, at his more controversial statements — about the Holocaust, about assassinating Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and about how 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were punishments for the sins of Americans — in retribution for homosexuality, abortion, and a host of other sins. As readers know, he was recently in the news again, commenting on the terrible earthquake in Haiti:

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the Devil said, okay it's a deal."

     On one level, it is easy to dismiss Mr. Robertson entirely, as a bad historian, as talking way too much without sufficient reflection, as tone deaf and insensitive to the sufferings of large numbers of people, and as self-serving in conveniently discovering that immense tragedies are God at work punishing behavior he finds sinful. Most of us disapprove of such sweeping explanations, and indeed, cannot imagine that God would cause an earthquake or hurricane to punish behavior we find distasteful or wrong, particularly when the victims are most often those who have already been suffering systemic injustice, including our neglect, for a very long time. We do not share either his opinions about America or those of the 9/11 hijackers. Certainly, Mr. Robertson has once again suffered wide, proper disapproval due to his Haiti remarks. 

     I raise all this here, however, because on one level at least he is quite right, in throwing a direct challenge in the face of any of us who call ourselves Christians. Does the world make sense from a Christian perspective, or not? For he is attempting to explain why God allows such catastrophes to take place. God allows: the question — that of theodicy — is the age-old one: if God is all-good and all-powerful, why the hurricane? the earthquake? the slaughter of innocents? History is full of failed answers, of course, and most of us simply step around the issue of why, and express, rightly, our solidarity with victims, the need for action to help those in need, and our speechlessness at the mystery of such evils. We cannot explain why God would allow any place to be hit by such an earthquake, or in particular why Haitians, who have suffered so much for so long, could possibly be singled out by God for such punishment, while the rest of us look on. Mr. Robertson is clearly trying to come up with reasons for why such things take place — to preserve his conviction that the world is in God’s hands, that nothing happens except by divine decree.

     We can, rightly, insist that asking, “Why do these tragedies happen?” is the wrong question to ask, it is a question to which there will never be a good answer — certainly not one of moral retribution, as if this or that group of thousands of people deserves to die, or serves merely as the tool of a strict master’s lesson, or as if God has somehow stepped back and let the devil have his way. But we have to be careful not to abandon the idea that the world can still be seen in light of what we know of God. We have to believe that in some way, such events are still “in the hands — mind, heart — of God,” lest we simply be admitting a chasm between our faith and the events of the real world.

     Better to ask, I suggest, “Where is God when such events take place? Where is God when Haitians — none of them deserving this calamity — are suffering?” God is present in that suffering, calling to us from the midst of it, in a way that should deeply shake our ordinary way of viewing the world. Our everyday values and measurements are pushed aside, our normal list of complaints made to seem trivial. Death, the possibility of the sudden end to life as we know it, is suddenly before us, in our face. And God, ever present among the hungry, the outcaste, the oppressed, asks us to find God in the face of those who suffer, yet again.

     It is not just a matter of thinking, “God wants us to help those in trouble,” though that is very true. Nor is it to say, “God causes disasters so as to communicate with us more dramatically,” as if to educate North Americans by suffering that happens somewhere else — another trivial, cruel notion. Rather, we do well to see God not as the cause of disasters, nor as somehow failing to stop them, but as a God who dwells in that extreme suffering — as in extreme bliss — in the evil as in the good. Not quite God speaking out of whirlwind, as in the Book of Job, but something rather like that. We need to not turn away, not justify, not excuse, the sufferings of 9/11, Katrina, the 2005 tsunami, this recent earthquake, but rather, in the face of such events, to encounter God there too, in such places. This is what it means to say that Christ was crucified not only 2000 years ago, but in every moment of unspeakable suffering, loss, cruelty, large and small, in 2010 too. What is God telling, showing us, if Haiti is where God has now shown up?

     This approach — sketched very briefly, perhaps a bit inarticulately here (30 minutes of writing is not enough on such a topic!) — is not likely to satisfy a preacher who wants to reassure his flock, in detail and with certitude, that everything happens according to God’s intention to punish sin. But what I am suggesting (as have numerous thinkers through the ages) moves toward a specifically religious and Christian — though with some adjustments, it could be Hindu as well — alternative to Mr. Robertson’s grasp at meaning. He has, therefore, pushed us to deepen and yes, darken our Christian view of the world. Christ is there, under that collapsed building.

     What do you think?  

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David Nickol
11 years 10 months ago
It is amusing (sort of) that the tools provided for composing messages on this site give the capability of adding boldface, italics, and underscores (all of which I have added to those three words), that the formatting appears in the preview, and that it is completely removed when the actual message is posted! 
James Lindsay
11 years 10 months ago
The problem is, Robertson is avering that God is punishing Haiti. As I wrote on Katrina, Jesus speaks directly against this idea. Jesus said, when asked of the sinfulness of the thirteen people killed by the Tower of Siloam that all have need of repentence (Luke 13:1-5). The people killed by the Tower were no more sinful than anyone else.
David Nickol
11 years 10 months ago
I think a great deal of the problem in coming to grips with tragedies like this is the belief that if you pray hard enough, or if enough people pray, God will ''change his mind'' and intervene where he would not otherwise have done so. The idea that prayer can move God to do something he would otherwise not have done is theologically unsound, but it seems to be implicit in our everyday approach to religion and prayer.
11 years 10 months ago
I know it's theologically unsound to imagine one can change God's mind - he's impassible, and being omniscient, omnipotent, and completely good, he doesn't need advice on the right thing to do.  But there are place in the NT where it seems like God does change his mind or can be moved through persistent pestering (the Canaanite woman, for instance), and Jesus advises people to ask God for what they want.  I guess I don't get the disconnect between the bible and theology sometimes.
What also seems not to be consistent is that we don't think prayers can move God to help people through intervention (prevent the earthquake) but we're advised to pray for the victims of the earthquake - does God only do damage control?
James Lindsay
11 years 10 months ago
As I have said on this previously, and said about Katrina as well, the only sin God is punishing is bad urban planning. God does not force us to put cities on fault lines or below canals. We do that. We should not expect him to give us a pass when we put ourselves at risk.

This, of course, is not a justification for doing nothing. As you say, the Gospel is not about pinning blame for natural (or manmade) disasters, but in how we see God and ourselves in those who suffer and respond to them.
11 years 10 months ago
I've long been puzzled by another question, padre. One that deals with man-made rather than natural disasters. Natural disasters like Katrina, incurable cancers and the Haitian quake can be viewed through the lens of the Book of Job as they are both beyond our grasp and beyond our control-they are things we cannot understand, just as Job eventually admits he cannot understand the ways of God. But what about man-made disasters: Things like 9/11 or the genocides in Rwanda, Turkish Armenia, Bosnia, Nazi Germany and Cambodia; the blind eye turned toward the Irish famine and the suffering inflicted by Stalin's gulag. The question of how an omnipotent God could have allowed such man-made disasters to happen is one that's somewhat easier to wrestle with. And the answer I've always come back to hinges on how we, as Catholics, understand free will. The church teaches that God gives us the freedom to make informed ethical decisions. He gives us the freedom to sin... or not. It's not, then, that God wanted six million Jews to die in the Holocaust but that-in the blessed curse that is free will-those people suffered because God allows all people, including their persecutors, to make moral decisions that affect others. People act, and others get hurt. God allows people to sin... or not. I've long asked myself why. Is it so that we can prove, via our actions, that we are good or bad? And why is that so important? I don't know, Fr. Clooney. I remain at a loss.
Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 10 months ago
There is a remarkable photo going around now (if I could post it her I would.) In the midst of the destruction, there was one item that remained standing and untouched at the cathedral in Port au Prince… Jesus the Christ Crucified. Some would call it a miracle.
I have always wondered why a God would allow his own son to be crucified.  In my own time in Haiti and working with prisoners and their families, I often feel that I am somehow standing on the streets of Calvary, watching.  It makes no sense, but life is somehow more REAL.  As if I could see and touch the very wounds of Christ.
Mary Kennedy
11 years 10 months ago
Perhaps Robertson's comments illustrate nothing so much as the natural tendency of man to want to make God in his own image and likeness. 
John Donaghy
11 years 10 months ago
It might be helpful to look at Jon Sobrino's WHERE IS GOD? EARTHQUAKE, TERRORISM, BARBARITY, and HOPE. He confronts the issue in a challenging approach that we North Americans ought to take seriously.
Paul Harris
11 years 10 months ago
Pat Robertson's followers are PLIFs.              
People Living In Fear:
A reference to conservative or fundamentalist followers of any religion that leads them to be fearful of any questioning of their religious doctrine or to be open to creative, new ideas. Because psychologically fear is such a crippling emotion, psychologically healthy people tend to try and control and recognize this in themselves. Those who don't tend to rely on more dictatorial or authoritarian leaders whether they be in the form of a political leader or their own chosen God. 
Paul Harris                      
Author, ''Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina''
Marie Rehbein
11 years 10 months ago
Where is God when an earthquake hits an unpopulated area?  Where is God when an unpopulated area floods?  Where is God when a tornado runs through an unpopulated area?  I could go on.  I agree with Michael Bindner that these things are part of our reality.  We have God-given brains that can be directed toward finding ways of minimizing the harm done by these natural phenomena. 

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