Is God angry at the GOP? At New Orleans?

Aug 28, 2012

On Monday, Republicans opened and then quickly recessed their 2012 national convention due to Tropical Storm Isaac (which is expected to become a hurricane before it makes landfall in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida.

The Republican National Convention had to cancel an evening of events four years ago, and basically did it again Monday.

If weather is a sign from God, as some Republican-identified leaders - both religious and political - have suggested, should they be applying that analysis to their own convention?

If so, what should the take away message be?

How about liberal-leaning pundits who suggest that the weather in Tampa is a sign from God? Why don't they make similar jokes about New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf coast? Is it simply wrong to invoke the hand of God as an explanation for other people's misfortunes, and if so, why do many people do it? Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 12 p.m. ET about this topic. Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

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With Isaac about to be upgraded from tropical storm to category 1 hurricane, the questions raised this week are getting that much more serious.  My guess is that like most things election-related, many will confuse heat with light when it comes to addressing them.  Let's see if we can do better.

 

Why do people invoke God's hand?  Is it me, or is it almost done, especially in politcal settings, as justification and opportunity to critique others, as opposed to an opprotunity to learn about ourselves and the positions we hold dear?

 

Are you bothered by God-talk in general when related to these evetns, or simply by how foolishly such conversation too often proceeds?

 

Let's get started!

The belief that moral or immoral behavior causes weather is from era of religious thinking as far removed from our own as burning sheep for sacrifices. What should a modern person think about the Amish practice of not putting lightning rods on their barns as a thwarting of God's will to send punishment? It strikes me as not far removed from the belief it was wrong to administer anesthesia in surgery. If the Amish weren't so universally admired, we'd consider it animal cruelty to risk immolating them.

By "them" I realize you meant the Amish peoples' animals, not the Amish themselves, but let's start by making clear that others understand that too!

 

Your claim about the weather and human behavior is actually not from as distant an era as you may imagine.  In fact, I would guess that many Americans, and a plurality of people on the planet, if not an outright majority, hold such views.  Don't confuse what you wish was the norm with what other people actually experience as such, and don't make the mistake of consigning to history what is very present for lots of people -- at least not if you want to be taken seriuously by them.

 

In fact, one of the reasons for the conflicts which arise around our various and competing beliefs is the ease with which all people seem to slip from the fight for the right to believe what they want, to the fight for others to share their beliefs.  Even if yours are judged more sophisticated by you and I, that's no excuse for arrogance.

 

My question for those who do not put lightning rods on their barns, would be why do they place them on their homes?  That questions takes their theology seriously, while still challenging how it works.  A more productive course, I think.

Partisanship is not a meteorological phenomenon. This question does, though, get to heart of what religion is supposed to mean to a modern, scientific thinker. The ancients couldn't understand what caused weather except an entity with a mind similar to theirs making conscious choices. Now that we know why hurricanes and earthquakes occur, how do we re-defined what the supposed scope of God is? To me, the minimal definition of being a god is that at least sometimes, natural laws are suspended for a moral purpose; even to a slight extent like prayer healing diseases beyond random chance. Evidence is wanting.

You are certainly correct about the evolving nature of human understanding of what/who God is.  I am more cautious however regarding the claim that assumes it is always used to explain the otherwise unexplainable.  That approach always leaves us looking back and down at our ancestors or those who continue to hold their theologies.

 

It seems to me that for both the serious religionist and the serious scientist, the challenge is always to head for the mystery,maintain a sense of humility about what we do not know, fear no inquiry about such things, and delight in the unfolding of new knowledge which leads us to lead better lives and help others to do the same.

I think that some of the liberal pundits that you mentioned were not really joking but being sarcastic. There is a huge difference. I do agree it is inappropiate to make jokes when people are facing calamity. Also, though I am religious, I think invoking God as a reason for some people's misfortunes (other than natural disasters) is irresponsible. If a person who is homeless, impoverished, hungry, or jobless, and people invoke God as punishing those people, it gives people an excuse not to help those people. God should not be used as an excuse. Thank you for allowing my rant.

You are most welcome and it was hardly a rant.  You raise important and valuable issues, even if you are a bit to forgiving for my taste!  :)  What I mean is that even though you are correct about the difference between sarcasm and a joke, it strikes me as no time for either when a storm is bearing down on other people.  Were it used to diffuse the tension and cope with misfortunes befalling one's self, then I woudl defend it, but not when used to analyze the woes of others.

 

Your line that God should not be used as an excuse is simply fantastic!  You leave room for those who understand God as the cause of all things, but refuse to let them off the hook in terms of their own ethical and spiritual obligations.  Thank you!!

Isn't the first question: Is God angry? And if so, how so? How should we understand this anger? Or is that emotion unfit for God?

The idea of a God who experiences emotion is certainly a challenging one.  Personally, I don't know what is or is not "unfit for God" because I am not her/him/it/them.  That is not a joke either.

 

For me, all language describing God is for human consumption and, by definiton, a pale image of a reality beyond our comprehension.  That is why I so dislike all this speculation about the hand of God.  It assumes that the finite(we humans) can fully appreciate the infinite God being invoked by believers.  It strikes me as almost idolatrous for the beleivers, and foolsih for the non-believers, to do so.

I would say no, for under free will we should be able to work it out amongst ourselves.

A perfectly logical response, but one which avoids the ethical challenge of how those who feel the hand of God in day-to-day events should speak about those events, which is the real concern here.

 

I am totally prepared to leave the theological debate altogether, but the ethics of public discourse, how people use their most deeply held beliefs to navigate in the world, etc.  Those are questions which effect us all and need to be examined.  That's we are here!

"Is it simply wrong to invoke the hand of God as an explanation for other people's misfortune" - Yes, a thousand times, yes. This has no purpose other than projecting one's own hatreds onto one's deity.

Your sensitivity resonates with me, but I am less sure regarding your conclusions. In fact, for those who believe that God is moving in all things, then all things flow from God.  And for you to object to invoking God as a source of woe but not object equally to invoking God as a source of good, leaves you thinking of God as a cosmic vending machine in which the "goodies" are a projection of your understanding of the good.

 

Rather than deciding what God does and doesn't cause (which is NEVER provable in any direction), it seems more resonable to agree that we will apply the most rigorous tests to ourselves and the most generous undertandings to others, avoiding using God as little more than a sanctimonious footnote for what we already believed in the first place.

I think there are two different phenomena at work. The Republican party as it exists in 2012 is generally aligned with the Pat Robertson types who seriously claim that hurricanes are punishments on "those people." I would have thought that only a monster would say that the thousands who lost loved ones and homes in Katrina got what they deserved. So when Democrats make jokes about the weather being a sign from the Christian god, it's inappropriate but at least understandable. The point of such jokes is that the people who blame victims in such disasters are reaping what they have sown. While I appreciate that, I still see the jokes as inadvertently endorsing the basic claim of weather as punishment. Far better to start from the moral principle that no one deserves what happens to them in such disasters.

Actually, your claim that nobody deserves what they get in disasters is very simillar to Robertson's claim that all people get exactly what they deserve.  Each of you is trying to craft a way to live with human suffering in a way that allows you to make sense of the world. 

Perhaps, you would both consider the possibility that the question of why it happens cannot be resolved, at least when we speak about suffering beyond ourselves and those who share our faith, and instead focus on what our faith can do to help us address the suffering when it happens.

Let's be honest, if there is a place God hates, it is probably Haiti, or maybe Somalia. Of course, that is (an admittedly bad) joke. The fact is we don't know what God's will is, not really. But the idea that He spends time analyzing our politics and uses natural phenomenom to express Himself is ridiculous. Do people really think that God would use such a messy and inexact means to express His displeasure (or I guess his praise, but we seem to never have that conversation)?

On the one hand you point out, rightly in my view, that we can't know the mind of God.  But on the other hand, you go on to limit what God could or would do based on exactly that presumption! 

 

If there is an infinite God, and I believe that there is, them we all need to reisit the temptation to finitize that God, especially when doing so makes us less willing or able to engage others and take their needs seriously.

 

That last bit includes the people who DO take seriously the notion of a God who acts through the weather, as probably billions of people do.  Who knows?  Perhaps they are correct.  But what gets to me is their insistence that not only do they "know" they are correct, they also "know" that theirs is always the correct interpretation.

I can't speak for others, but I've been saying "this is proof that God hates intolerant liars" as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of Robertson, Falwell, et al who have requested or used hurricanes and other natural disasters as "proof" that God is "punishing," for the most part, gays. It's stupid, but, um, how do they explain this one?

It's a good question and before I address it, I would beg you to check your tongue-in-cheek remarks.  Even as a joke, how do you think they are experienced by people who truly hold those beliefs and who lives are being wrecked by teh storm?  Don't do to them what you rightly object to them doing to others.

 

As to the absence of willingness to apply the approach to one's own, you are spot on.  I have heard from some, though not seen in print, that this is applicable to Republicans and -- you will love this -- it is a punishment for not being conservative enough.  The one thing I will say for those who take that view is that they are at least willing to live by the same standard they impose on others.  That makes them honest and ethical, if still really difficult for me to appreciate.

The 'is God rooting against the GOP' meme is offensive and cruel. To accept this premise, you would have to presume that deaths and injuries, property damage and ongoing disruption are merely incidental to God, as he or she acts against the GOP. AIDS is not payback to gays, nor is cancer comeuppance to smokers/the obese, etc. I am worried about our moral compass if this is truly what people think. Very worried in Florida....

Could not have said it better and thank you for saying it.  The moral compass concern is real and boild down to the problem that we have become a culture in which people assume that the unknowable is knowable to them and that wherever they are headed is, by definition, true north.  Of course, these are the conversations which help correct that problem and, hopefully, contribute to creating a healthier culture.

When people make jokes about this, there is an understanding that the joke is so far-fetched that only an idiot would take it to be a serious possibility that God would do this. So yes, it is offensive to idiots. It is harmless joking to everyone else.

It must be nice to assume that all those who disagree with you are idiots, but tell me one thing: doesn't that mean that you relate to others in exactly the way you find them to be most offensive.

 

Here's a test for you to ponder, assuming as I do, that you are a decent and intelligent person:  would you rely on your theory about what all non-idiots understand and make such a joke in the presence of someone who has lost their home, business, or worse, a loved one in the storm?  Think about it and I think you will stop make excuses for what you know is inappropriate language, no matter who uses it.

The storm is now officially a hurricane....

And this is why I choose not to believe in the religion of my family but in Science. A "god" would never allow persecution of people, storms to ravage areas and kill people, lunatics to walk into theaters with loaded guns - or make people behave properly merely due to the threat of an unbearable "afterlife". But science, which can be studied and proven, can. The evidence is all there, not just in a tome supposedly written down by men over 2000 years ago or about 6000 years ago, depending on what you believe.

Where to begin?  Since time is short, let's just say that when you compare the most easily embraced of science to the lowest level understanding of God, it's really no big deal for science to "win".  Of course, as a self-described believer in a new tradtion, you reflect the fervor or all converts.

 

Perhaps a wiser path would be to adress how both science and relgion, in the absence of some intelellectual humility can both run amok, and why you find greater meaning and purpose through science.  No decent person could argue with that, and you would actually help diffuse some of the relgious arrogance which you  rightly find so offensive.

"Is it simply wrong to invoke the hand of God as an explanation for other people's misfortunes?" Of course. But are you really comparing the misfortune the GOP delegates and attendees to the convention with the Katrina disaster? C'mon Rabbi. If so, why do many people do it? I understand you're just trying to provoke discussion but it's pretty clear. There is humor in the irony of turning the argument made by people of faith that bad things happen to people for a reason, namely, it is a sign that God is displeased with the unfortunate persons who suffer the misfortune. The fact that you're even raising this demonstrates how pitiful the GOP has become as a result of being co-opted by people of faith. You can't have an honest debate when people who use their belief in an ominpresent power beyond our world to support their positions. Isn't it just a convenient tool to mask true motives of such folks? Like trying to control others and improve your own lot by imposing your religious beliefs on others or claiming your beliefs are the only correct ones and non-believers will go to hell or deserve misfortune. There's an ethical question worth debating.

A little angry there, huh?  Well there is no time to address all that you wrote, but it is certainly important to clarify that NO comparison can be made between disrupting a politcal convention and the horror of Katrina.  I know, I saw the devastation not that long after it happened, and will never forget it. 

 

Also importnat to not that in your anger, you assumed that I was even thinking of Katrina when I mentioned New Orleans.  In fact, I was thinking about the potential damage of Hurrican Isaac.  I mention that because your comments remind us that when we start out looking for the worst in each other, we will always find it, and that is exactly what you did.

 

We are not all equally good, and we are not even all good, but always hunting for the worst in each other and in each other's views is no recipe for a happy life for anyone.

Well, once again, the time is at hand and my hands are tired.  Thanks, as always for so many thoughful questions and comments.

 

Whether God causes events in the world or not, and whether there is a God or not, let's all take a moment to hold in our thoughts all those who live in the wake of the storm, and ask ourselves what, if anything, we might do to make things better for them, whatever their politcs or faith.

 

'Til next week,

Peace

In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by Beliefnet.com, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see www.bradhirschfield.com.
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