Religious liberals, and moderates, for that matter, bemoan the existence and activities of Pastor Fred Phelps, the spiritual leader of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church and the mastermind behind God Hates Fags.
He is, of course, of a piece with others on the far right of religious America who have claimed that Katrina represents divine retribution for, well, ___(fill in the blank)___. Their evidence for God's hatred -- of New Orleans, or Cajun music, or accordions, or promiscuity, or gayness, or whatever -- is that God sent, or at least permitted, an extraordinary torrent of water to kill hundreds and devastate the communities that supported or, at least, tolerated gays, promiscuity, accordions, whatever.
It's the same argument put forward by Phelps and others regarding other bad things. AIDS = proof that God hates fags. 9/11 = proof that God hates America (for our freedoms, as it turns out). Tsunami = proof that God hates Swedes. (You heard me: Swedes).
The thing about Phelps, though, is: He's right.
Now, the religious left, and moderates, for that matter, try to ignore Phelps and his ilk, or denounce them when they get too loud. And they try to reassure everyone that Phelps & Co. simply don't understand God the way normal, sane people do.
But let's look at Phelps' reasoning, and see where he veers from America's religious mainstream:
God exists (broad consensus)I'm sorry, but I gotta say, the evidence seems to be with Phelps on this. Look at what God's saddled gays with, or at least permitted to afflict them: Centuries of oppression, persecution and opprobrium; AIDS; Mario Cantone. It's an unholy trinity of divine tribulation that would test Job himself.
God is all-knowing (broad consensus)
God is all-powerful (broad consensus)
God can perform miracles (broad consensus)
God does perform miracles (broad consensus)
God permits Katrina/tsunami/9-11/etc. (broad consensus)
=God hates Cajuns/Swedes/skyscrapers (Fred Phelps)
=YeahbutGodlovesusanyway (America's religious mainstream)
If God truly exists and, on top of existing, can actually, um, do stuff, why wouldn't he? In many legal systems, those with the capability to stop bad stuff who fail to do so go to the pokey. Why? Because failing to intervene, when intervention would come at little cost, is maliciously anti-social. Its motive can be assumed to be at best pathological indifference and at worst gleeful malevolence.
So, how do all those nice, sane, rational religious Americans explain God's constant torment of men who like men, and other people who live near large bodies of water? Let's check out Beliefnet.com, probably the most prominent multi-deity hangout since Olympus. On their site they have a whole section devoted to the spiritual response to Katrina. (Weird, you'd think after millennia of preaching at people, religious leaders should be able to count on believers to know full well by now why their gods let them die.) In this section, Tony Campolo takes a shot at this theological conundrum. Let's see how his logic holds up:
Katrina: Not God's Wrath--or His Will
The Hebrew Bible doesn't say God is omnipotent. When disaster strikes, he cries with the rest of us.
By Dr. Tony Campolo
Whenever there is a catastrophe, some religious people inevitably ask, "Why didn’t God do something? Where was God when all those people died?" Among the answers we might consider is the one that Martin Luther gave as his wife asked a similar question upon the death of their infant son. Luther answered, "The same place he was when His son died!"We might consider that answer, but it probably satisfies you about as well as it did Marty's wife, and I'm not sure how well Katrina's victims would respond to the news that God decided their suffering was needed to save humanity from the damnation of, well, God.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad answers.One might argue, there are only bad answers.
One such answer is that somehow all suffering is a part of God’s great plan.That's actually a good answer. Unfortunately for Tony, it's an argument that favors Fred Phelps and makes God look really bad. So, let's watch Tony discard it:
Um, okay, but in that Romans part Tony just quoted, the Bible was equally clear that "all things work together for the good." And Genesis was pretty clear about God being the author of, um, everything. That's the problem...sorry, a problem...with the Bible: It's pretty clear about lots of things, even when it's pretty clearly contradicting other stuff it was pretty clear about. (Why do you think the sub-headline for this article specifies the Hebrew Bible? Is it possible the sequel violates continuity worse than the average 1950s Mort Weisinger Superman story?)
In the midst of agonies, someone is likely to quote from the Bible, telling us that if we would just be patient, we eventually would see "all things work together for the good, for those who love God, and are called according to His purposes." (Romans 8:28)
I don’t doubt that God can bring good out of tragedies, but the Bible is clear that God is not the author of evil! (James 1:15)
Statements like that dishonor God...Which, of course, isn't a logical rebuttal, but, apparently, a suggestion that we ought to be more sensitive about God's feelings.
...and are responsible for driving more people away from Christianity than all the arguments that atheistic philosophers could ever muster.Which, again, isn't a logical rebuttal, but, apparently, a suggestion that would-be proselytizers might want ixnay the adbay-eityday ogiclay for fear of putting the kibosh on the whole keep-the-faith marketing plan.
When the floods swept into the Gulf Coast, God was the first one who wept. There are still other religionists who take the opportunity to tell us that God is punishing America for its many sins.Which is fully in keeping with the Hebrew Bible's many accounts of God punishing non-Americans for their sins. After all, Americans aren't the chosen people!
Such as: A warning, a lifeboat, a few MREs...
Undoubtedly, there are some al-Qaeda fanatics who right now are saying that Katrina is the hand of God, striking America for what we have done to the people of Iraq and to the Palestinians. Furthermore, there are Christians who, in the weeks to come, can be counted on to thunder from their pulpits that Katrina is God’s wrath against the immorality of this nation, pointing out that New Orleans is the epitome of our national degradation and debauchery. To all of this I say, "Wrong."
The God revealed in Jesus did not come into the world "to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." (John 3:17) There can be no arguments over the claim that, for a variety of reasons, our nation deserves punishment. But when the Bible tells us about the grace of God, it is giving us the good news that our loving God does not give us what we truly deserve.
Certainly, God would not create suffering for innocent people, who were--for the most part--Katrina’s victims.Um, why is that certain? God certainly created suffering for innocent people in the Bible, parts I and II. Just saying it's certain don't make it so, Tony.
Perhaps we would do well to listen to the likes of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who contends that God is not really as powerful as we have claimed. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say that God is omnipotent. Kushner points out that omnipotence is a Greek philosophical concept, but it is not in his Bible.Ah-ha! Here we have the first concrete theory to go head-to-head with Phelps'! Phelps claims God let Katrina happened because he chose to. Our rational, mainstream friend Tony, however, suggests that God is not the planet-pushing Superman of Mort Weisinger's era, but the scaled-down, power-drained Superman of Denny O'Neil! Tony's God wanted to help, he even gave it the old college try, but in the end God just can't part the waters like he used to.
Instead, the Hebrew Bible contends that God is mighty. That means that God is a greater force in the universe than all the other forces combined.Except, as we've established, water. Apparently, water is now God's kryptonite.
In scripture we get the picture of a cosmic struggle going on between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The good news is that, in the end, God will be victorious.Which should console, well, anyone who's still around then.
See, this is Tony's acknowledgment that believers in a faith don't get the luxury of asking why. After all, that's what faith is, the abandonment of reason. If you abandon reason, you don't get reasons. That's why Phelps gets to claim the logical win -- because Tony's side knows that it's not an issue of logic. And that's why the religious left, and even some moderates, don't like this question: Because it forces them to confront the fundamental element of faith which they most strongly deny, its conflict with rationality. That's why you see all these silly attempts to suggest that science and religion are reconcilable when they are, by definition, diametrically opposed to each other.
That is why we can sing in the Hallelujah Chorus, "the kingdoms of this world [will] become the Kingdom of our Lord."
Personally, I contend that the best thing for us to do in the aftermath of Katrina is to remain silent, and not try to explain this tragedy.
Instead of asking "Why?" we should be asking, "What does God want us to do now?"Again, despite the premise of his headline and his commentary to date, Tony is essentially turning out his pockets and confessing, "I got nothing." Which is, at least, honest. But if the religious left really has nothing, then it shouldn't try to portray Phelps as nuts. Phelps is actually the one applying logic here! The mainstream is the side embracing irrational faith in the face of conflicting evidence! That's why Tony has to settle for distracting believers with the equivalent of busy work:
Now Tony interprets Biblical allegorical poetry literally, just as the religious right is always slammed for doing when it serves their purposes.
The loving God calls all believers in the face of Katrina’s devastation to seek ways to express love in concrete ways towards those who have lost friends and family members; and to those who have lost homes along with most of their earthly belongings.
In the Bible, we read this passage: "And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." (I Kings 19:11-12)
Instead of looking for God in the earthquake or the tsunami, in the roaring forest fires blazing in the western states, or in the mighty winds of Katrina...But, Tony, dude, even if God weren't in the earthquake, why couldn't he have stopped it? Or at least issued a warning? Put up a sign or something?
...it would be best to seek out a quiet place and heed the promptings of God’s still small voice. That voice will inspire us to bring some of God’s goodness to bear in the lives of those who suffer.But if God isn't willing or able to stop the earthquakes and other ills that plague us, what exactly is this goodness of God's that Tony's talking about? The goodness of indifference? What goodness exactly do we see in God? What evidence is there of any god at all other than the god of Fred Phelps?
Dr. Tony Campolo is an ordained minister and the founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. Professor emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, he is the author of 28 books, including 'Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God.'So, apparently, God isn't just a weakling, he blushes easy, too. This essay of Campolo's is a perfect example of why the left, and the mainstream, don't like Phelps. It's not because he defames their god, it's not even (always, or entirely) because of the hate Phelps spews. It's because Phelps has the demonstrably superior logic when it comes to explaining bad things. It's because, if there were a god, he would clearly and obviously hate fags, New Orleans, breeders, Sweden, me, you and everyone who ever drew breath with a savage, mighty, awesome ferocity. Which leaves the left having to deny that they're caught between defending irrational beliefs, and defending a rational, hateful god. Dropping that denial would, in turn, force the left either to reject rationality or reject God. I just pray they'll choose rationally.