Rabbi David Segal: Guest Opinion
September 1, 2012
Then the Eternal answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this who darkens counsel, with words lacking knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak up if you have understanding. (Job 38:1-2,4)
It has become routine, in the wake of manmade and natural disasters around the world, for certain self-appointed prophets to declare the divine motivation behind extreme events.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed the devastation on the “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union and the People For the American Way,” who had brought God’s wrath upon America. Pat Robertson agreed; he himself had warned Orlando, Fla., in 1998 of impending hurricanes if it proceeded with a planned gay pride festival. He went on to blame Hurricane Katrina on God’s wrath over abortion; Pastor John Hagee blamed that “curse of God” on homosexuality. Around the same time, Hal Lindsey and Charles Colson also asserted that Hurricane Katrina was a manifestation of God’s judgment. Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck have referred to other hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis as wake-up calls from an angry God.
These religious voices would have more credibility if they were consistent. However, none of them spoke up to explain the tragic wildfires that devastated Colorado Springs. Perhaps the fires’ proximity to that epicenter of evangelical Christianity made the usual fire-and-brimstone talking points uncomfortable and untenable.
Last week, as Hurricane Isaac approached Tampa, Fla., and postponed activities of the Republican National Convention, I wondered what the usual seers of God’s will would proclaim. On Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, discussions implied that Christian prayer had diverted Isaac from hitting Tampa as forecast. No one even hinted that this storm was a divine punishment – aside from several snarky, facetious liberal bloggers. Somehow, God’s purposes, as described by those who claim to know them without doubt or hesitation, always seem to make those same self-appointed representatives look good.
Those who speak with absolute certainty about God’s will are probably selling something. This is especially true of those whose speech about God’s motivations always paints themselves as “right with God” and their opponents as sinners or enemies of God. Arrogance cloaked in pious garb is still arrogance. A religious orientation ought to inspire us to self-judgment first and foremost, leaving the judgment of others to God and not to our egotistical delusions of god-like grandeur.
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In the Jewish tradition, we are now in the month of Elul, which precedes the Jewish new year and begins our season of repentance. It is a time for introspection, reflection and self-improvement. We are called to a spiritual accounting, cataloguing the missteps of the prior year and digging deep to avoid them in the coming year. It is the antithesis of election season, which traffics in pointing fingers, shifting blame and manipulating facts.
Don’t get me wrong: I wholeheartedly affirm the value of engaging in serious political arguments. The relative merits of party platforms and candidates’ records should be debated openly and passionately. But that’s precisely why the reckless theology I described above is so crippling: It stifles actual debate by playing the fallacious “I know God’s will” trump card. Such claims have no place in the public square. Moreover, using absolutist theological language to browbeat political opponents is a form of idolatry.
A more productive and, indeed, pious approach takes its cue from perhaps the greatest American theologian, Abraham Lincoln. In his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, Lincoln defined with brevity and poetry how to be religious and political. Referring to the North and South in the Civil War, he said, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The almighty has his own purposes … With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Even in the face of the grave sin of slavery, Lincoln checked his ego at the door of his religious and political commitments. Authentic faith in God entails the humility of knowing that the truth is bigger than any one of us can fully grasp. I suppose it’s unrealistic to expect our political leaders and pundits to follow Lincoln’s lead in this election season. But perhaps, at the very least, we can strive to live up to his example ourselves.
Hurricanes are not God’s way of punishing sinners. They are a reminder of how small and insignificant we humans are when confronting the vastness and elemental power of the universe. So the next time a whirlwind wreaks havoc on our coastline, let’s remember how much is out of our control. And rather than wasting our breath by blaming someone for bringing God’s wrath upon the land, why not lend a hand to help the victims of the storm?
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