A glimpse of the devastation wrought last month by the most destructive tsunami in recorded history.
AN ONLINE POLL at Beliefnet.com, the popular website on religion and spirituality, is asking what role God plays in natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami that has devastated much of Asia. The poll offers five options:
(1) God is punishing us.
(2) God is testing us.
(3) The earthquake and tsunami were sent by God, but we don't know what the purpose was.
(4) Although I believe in God, the supernatural had nothing to do with this tragedy.
(5) God doesn't exist; disasters like this are just forces of nature.
As one who believes in a God of both creation and history — a God involved in the lives of individuals and nations, and without whose existence our own existence would ultimately have no purpose — I voted for No. 3. So did 29 percent of all who have voted so far.
But the runaway winner, at 51 percent, is No. 4 — God exists, but He had no connection to the tsunami. Insurers may call such catastrophes "acts of God," but to a majority of Beliefnet's respondents, that is only a figure of speech.
Online polls are not scientific, of course, but the belief that God was uninvolved in the greatest natural calamity in years is being widely expressed.
"There is no God in this disaster," says essayist Rodger Kamenetz, a scholar of religion and literature at Louisiana State University. "It is not for the good, it is not for the bad. It just is."
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Christian theologian David B. Hart sees in the tsunami only "the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls." The Reverend Hakon Langstrom, a Lutheran deacon in Stockholm, tells worshippers: "The God we believe in is not someone who lies behind everything. God did not make this happen."
Harold Kushner popularized this view almost 25 years ago in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a book he wrote after his young son died from a terrible disease. God, Kushner argued, does not cause the miseries brought on by illness and natural disasters and accidents, and He is powerless to prevent them. Earthquakes, cancer, plane crashes — "these events do not reflect God's choices," he wrote. "They happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos. . . . And chaos is evil . . . because by causing tragedies at random, it prevents people from believing in God's goodness."
How an all-powerful and benevolent God can permit innocents to be massacred or suffer undeserved agonies is a question as old as monotheism itself. Kushner's answer is that God isn't all-powerful. Tsunamis happen, and for no reason at all. There is no divine calculus at work; there is simply bad luck. And so there is no reason to think hard thoughts about God when tragedy strikes. In Kushner's words, "We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry at God."
But what is so bad about being angry with God? Why shouldn't we challenge Him to make sense of the injustice and cruelty that He Himself has taught us to hate? Isn't it better to angrily question a God in whose universe we are sure nothing happens without a reason, than to resign ourselves to a weakling God who can do nothing about a world that kills and lays waste at random?
When Abraham learns of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he heatedly confronts God: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?"
Calling God to account, arguing with Him when He seems to be acting unjustly, has deep roots in Judeo-Christian faith. When Abraham learns of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he heatedly confronts God: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be 50 innocents within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent 50 who are in it? . . . Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Genesis 18:23-25).
When Pharaoh increases the Israelites' crushing workload, an outraged Moses challenges God: "Why have you done evil to this people?" (Exodus 5:22). When the blameless Job is afflicted with horrific suffering, he repeatedly demands to know why it is happening. "I speak out in the bitterness of my soul," he cries to God. "Tell me why You contend with me. . . . Does it befit you to plunder?" (Job 10:1-3).
Elie Wiesel tells the haunting story of three rabbis in Auschwitz who convened a court of law and put God on trial for allowing His children to be slaughtered. At the end of the trial, which stretched over several days, they pronounced Him guilty of crimes against humanity. Then one of the rabbis glanced at the darkening sky. And now, he said, it is time for our evening prayers.
To wrestle with God is not to abandon Him. To protest against the unearned suffering He inflicts or permits is not to reject His message — quite the opposite. But having protested a seeming lack of compassion and justice from Heaven, we are obliged to reach out to the victims and work even harder to establish justice and compassion here on Earth.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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