Praying To The God Of The SUV

Recently, I received a chain email from a friend of mine that was supposed to be a homage to God’s saving mercy—but in reality smacked of nothing more than trashy, pop theology. The email recounted the stories of several people who were supposed to be in either tower of the World Trade Center on the fateful day of September 11, 2001. Each person was delayed in getting to the office by seemingly small things like a child running late or new, tight shoes that required a pit stop at the convenience store to purchase a Band-Aid.

The email intimated that each of these people had been saved from the carnage by God intervening on their behalf to delay their arrival at work. Many others who received this email may have marveled at the way in which God works, sparing people from tragedy with small, seemingly irritating, delays. I, on the other hand, was offended and let the email sender know. It led to a rich and powerful phone conversation later that day where we both came to an agreement that, if followed logically, the examples tell a story of a God who is either capricious or lacking in any real power.

If God can put small delays in the path of a few people headed for the Twin Towers that day, why not do that to all of them? If God has the power to save some, why not save all? Why not perform a true miracle and make the buildings empty that morning—or better yet, send small delays to the hijackers so they missed their chance to hijack planes that morning? Rejoicing that God sent mini-miracles to save the few while allowing the many to perish is an odious view of how God works in the world. Simply because some people had conscientious children or comfortable shoes, they were condemned to death on that beautiful September morning.

Trash theology as public policy

What the email represents is a belief about God that, when followed to its logical conclusions, is untenable by many people. But, trash theology in an email is one thing; putting that same theology into public policy crosses the line between church and state. Atheists in Kentucky are suing over such theology – written into the state’s anti-terrorism law:

A group of atheists filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to remove part of a state anti-terrorism law that requires Kentucky’s Office of Homeland Security to acknowledge it can’t keep the state safe without God’s help.

American Atheists Inc. sued in state court over a 2002 law that stresses God’s role in Kentucky’s homeland security alongside the military, police agencies and health departments.

Of particular concern is a 2006 clause requiring the Office of Homeland Security to post a plaque that says the safety and security of the state “cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon almighty God” and to stress that fact through training and educational materials.

Certainly, Christians are welcome to pray to God to keep them safe and secure, but to enlist God in a state law protecting all people in the state, believers and unbelievers alike, forces one point of view about God on everyone. The nature of God, and how God works in the world, has been a bone of contention among theologians for millennia. Enshrining one view within a state law is offensive not just to atheists, but to people of faith who may disagree with how God acts to “protect” those who believe.

Relying on “almighty God” for homeland security discounts the reality of free will. The hijackers on September 11 had free will: they used it to hijack planes and fly them into buildings. The people going to work had free will: some called in sick, some had tight shoes and stopped for a Band-Aid. Some got to work early or came in on a day off. If God has granted us free will, then God must stand back and let us use it. Any other action means that we are simply automatons. There would be no need for free will if God is simply manipulating us in each moment.

The free will exercised that day by the hijackers didn’t come out of the blue. The attacks were in response to what they saw as American arrogance in the world and failed foreign policies in the Middle East. The attacks came because of a large man-made mess that had been years in the making.

Detroit prays for a miracle

This idea of relying on “almighty God” to get us out of our own man-made messes has led to another curious phenomenon: praying for a holy “bail-out” plan for struggling automakers. Churches around Michigan used their Sunday services to pray for a miracle for the auto companies and the workers who rely on them. One service was complete with Hybrid S.U.V.s on display in the front of the church.

Greater Grace, the largest church in Detroit, invited officials from the United Automobile Workers union to speak before Bishop Ellis gave his sermon, titled “A Hybrid Hope.”

The S.U.V.’s on the stage, a Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Escape and Chrysler Aspen on loan from local dealerships, were all gas-electric hybrids, and Bishop Ellis urged worshipers to combat the region’s woes by mixing hope with faith in God.

“We have done all that we can do in this union, so I turn it over to the Lord,” General Holiefield, a U.A.W. vice president for Chrysler, told the crowd. A vice president for the parts suppliers, James Settles Jr., asked those present “to continue your prayers, so we can see a miracle next week.”

I’m certainly not one to discount the possibility of miracles. I’ve seen many in my own life—but what I find disturbing about all these instances of invoking God to protect us and save us from situations of our own making is that no one is preparing people for disappointment.

God’s “saving” and “miracle” working in our lives can sometimes look and feel likes God abandoning us. God works as God works – bringing good from tragedy and comforting us when things go wrong. If the automakers don’t get a “miracle” and go under, or Kentucky gets attacked by terrorists – it’s God who gets the bum rap for not “saving” or “protecting” us, when it should be the automakers taking the hit for lousy business practices, and Kentucky leaders held responsible for failing to do their jobs.

We’re slow to turn to God when we’re making a mess of things, and quick to blame God when our poor choices bring hard consequences. Instead of begging God for protection, or blaming God when things fall apart, perhaps we should be more aware of the choices we’re making each day and whether or not those choices bring prosperity and justice for only us or for as many people as possible.