Today (Monday, August 27th) the GOP (aka Grand Old Party, aka Republican Party) begins its nomination convention in Tampa. But things haven’t gone quite as planned. With Hurricane Isaac roaring past, travel plans have been upset, schedules have been reworked, and the convention has effectively been delayed for a day. To make matters worse, once the convention begins tomorrow the Republicans have a delicate balancing act. How do you have a big party with fiery stump speeches and ten thousand red, white and blue balloons when people on the battered Gulf are scrambling to avoid the inundation of Isaac? How do you do that and not appear cruel and callous? And then there’s the problem of media coverage. The spotlight is supposed to be fixed squarely on the convention to give the Republicans momentum going into the fall. So it hurts that a significant amount of media coverage will be devoted to Isaac (and reminiscences of Katrina which hit seven years ago).
Some Christian conservatives have distinguished themselves for their willingness to find God’s hand in horrible events. AIDS was God’s judgment on the gays. 9/11 was God’s judgment on America. Katrina was God’s judgment on New Orleans. The 2010 Hatian earthquake was God’s judgment on a nation that made a “deal with the devil” two centuries ago. And so on.
With that ignoble precedent, you’d think that we had solid warrant to conclude that Isaac is God’s jugment on the GOP for choosing Mitt Romney. It looks like Rick Santorum should have won after all. (Or was it Ron Paul?) Regardless, things could have been worse. Newt Gingrich as nominee likely would have produced a category 5 hurricane.
In all seriousness, I bet that if a hurricane were interrupting next week’s DNC convention in Charlotte, NC, that there would be some Christian conservatives identifying that hurricane as God’s judgment.
The whole practice of identifying God’s action with specific horrific events is a time honored practice. If the steeple of the Anglican church down the street were hit by lightning a week after the gay priest started his ministry, which conservative Anglican could resist drawing a link? (And what if the lightning hit a week after the gay priest was forced out? Perhaps the same people would interpret the lightning as “better late than never”.)
Some people are anxious to conclude from all this that drawing inferences about divine action in the world — particularly in the case of bad events — is something that you just shouldn’t do. And as a general rule I’m sympathetic with that conclusion. The perils are too great. It’s like when your fifteen year old wants to try pruning the tree with the chainsaw. “I appreciate the thought Junior, and you may just be able to get away with it. But the perils are really too great, and the risks far outweigh the benefits, so please put the chainsaw down.”
But if you are going to insist on inferring God’s judgment in horrible events let me suggest a few critical questions you should consider prior to jumping into the fray.
Question One: Ask yourself in all honestly whether your judgments of God’s actions might be simply a projection of your social ethical, theological or political commitments. To borrow a metaphor from Schweitzer, are you merely peering down a deep well and catching a reflection of yourself? If you’re convinced that you’re not, then you can proceed to the next question.
Question Two: What criteria are you using to identify God’s action in one circumstance over-against another? If Isaac’s glancing blow of Tampa wouldn’t convince you of divine disapproval, what about a direct strike? What if Mitt Romney were whisked up in the vortex in the middle of his acceptance speech and then were dumped (unharmed) right outisde a Tampa Bay unemployment office? Would that convince you?
Question Three: Do you apportion your belief to the evidence? That is, are you absolutely persuaded that God sent this or that calamity? Or do you recognize that you could be wrong and thus calibrate your assent to the claim accordingly?
Question Four: Finally, what does it even mean to say God caused one thing and not another?
As I said, in my view I think we’d all be better off carefully setting down claims to God’s special divine action of judgment in the world today like the teenager carefully setting down the chainsaw. But if you are going to pursue that risky route, be sure to ask yourself these questions first.