Tornado Hits the Heartland: Is God Punishing Us?

The city of Joplin, Missouri is in ruins today, the most recent casualty of the worst storm season in more than half a century. In April, tornadoes ripped through Alabama, and swaths of greater Memphis spent part of early May underwater thanks to record-high flooding of the Mississippi river. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was some kind of Divine punishment visited upon the South—and now the Midwest, the American heartland.

Which is funny, because when earthquakes struck Haiti, wildfires burned Israel, and a tsunami drenched much of Indonesia, plenty of religious leaders didn’t know better. Remember? How Pat Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on an 18th century pact with the devil? Or when Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Ovadia Yosef blamed Israel’s latest bout of wildfires on secular Israelis not keeping the Sabbath? Or how about the time some Christian fundamentalists said that he 2005 tsunami in Indonesia was punishment for, in the words of one, “worldliness, materialism, hedonism, uncleanness and pleasure-seeking”? Where are these self-proclaimed prophets of Godly vengeance now? Do storms only evince heavenly displeasure when they land on blue states?

Finding the hand of God in the vagaries of barometric pressure has a time-honored history, after all. Hurricane Katrina? Punishment for the “immorality” of New Orleans, of course, according to a priest recently promoted to bishop (after making those remarks) by Pope Benedict XVI. Even Glenn Beck (remember him?) opined that the recent catastrophes in Japan constituted “a message being sent. And that is, ‘Hey, you know that stuff we’re doing? Not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.’ I’m just saying.” (Read the full quote here.)

Strange, then, the eerie silence that has greeted this recent string of weather emergencies in the Bible Belt. One can understand the Christian Right keeping mum—after all, it’s their own backyard that’s being tempest-tossed and drowned. But where are the Cassandras of the Religious Left, blaming the tornadoes on opposition to same-sex marriage, or the floods on the Right’s evisceration of the Welfare State? Does progressive theology not go with brimstone?

The irony here is that many of these weather events actually are a kind of “punishment”—not in the conservative-theological sense of tit-for-tat justice meted out by an Abusive Father on High, but in the more progressive-theological sense of unforeseen consequences of reckless human actions. Climate scientists have said for years that global climate change will lead to increased severe weather events, and now they appear to be here; along with droughts and poor harvests caused by shifting climatic belts. On a planetary basis, we are reaping what we have sown for two hundred years.

If progressives were like conservatives, we’d be trumpeting Gaia’s Revenge on cable television, and then asking for donations. Although unlike conservatives, we’d actually have evidence to support our interpretation—not conclusively, of course, but with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty. So why aren’t we doing that?

Part of the reason is that religious progressives tend to value compassion over schadenfreude. When someone falls, even if they deserve it, few progressives stand over them and taunt them from above. (The only exceptions that come to mind are closeted gay homophobes like George Rekers and Ted Haggard. But then again, their falls are usually so lurid and ludicrous that you almost have to laugh.)

And part of the reason, of course, is that progressives are less likely to believe they can read the mind of God, and less likely to believe in traditional iterations of reward and punishment in the first place. I assume most religious progressives think the earthquake in Haiti happened because of plate tectonics, not theology. And even if God did play some role, we would be loathe to guess as to motive.

But, while I share these (un-)beliefs, I think we progressives are missing an opportunity to construct a meaningful alternative to the Old-Time Religion. That religion, after all, has lasted so long because it speaks to deep human needs. Not only does “reward and punishment” keep some folks in line, it also gives an impression of order amid the chaos. Hurricanes happen, earthquakes happen, but these theodicies helps everything cohere—for some people anyway.

Progressive theologies, which may see the Divine within nature rather than as a puppet master pulling its strings, could speak similarly. Probably we’d want to do without the talk of punishment and sin, but we could do with a rhetoric of actions and consequences—basically, karma. There are some basic lessons we could draw from the high rate of natural disasters lately. Like: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Or: Ignoring a problem does not make it go away. The failure to make difficult choices is, itself, a choice. And what some people do (or don’t do) affects other people; including innocent people like the recent victims of the tornadoes and floods. We are all connected, and we’re all in this together.

These are the kinds of religious conclusions I’d like to take away from the human tragedies in Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, and around the globe. They are consonant with my theology, they teach important lessons, and they help human beings in times of crisis be cognizant of the way actions have consequences. Of course, these lessons don’t apply in every case; global warming does not cause earthquakes. But they do apply in some. Extreme weather in America’s South and Midwest is yet another canary in the climate coalmine, and religious progressives would do well to draw appropriate moral conclusions from it. If we fail to do this, aren’t we leaving one of religion’s most crucial functions to some of its most reactionary proponents?