The recent tornado in Oklahoma that killed 24 people and destroyed or damaged 12,000 homes has stirred up a row on social networking site Twitter.
The day after the disaster, popular evangelical speaker and author John Piper tweeted two references to Job, including, "Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead" (Job 1:19). This kicked off a storm of tweets and retweets as people interpreted the verses as either the right thing to say or a veiled way to blame people for bringing the wrath of God on themselves. Evangelical writer Rachel Held Evans slammed what she called Piper's "abusive theology of 'deserved' tragedy" and said, "The only thing we need to tell [tornado victims] is, 'I don't know why this happened but God is good and God loves us.'" A staffer at Piper's Desiring God ministry said Piper was "highlighting God's sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy."
Q: In events such as the Oklahoma tornado, the Sandy Hook school shootings and other tragedies, is it right to claim that those affected brought it on themselves?
It is ludicrous to claim that tornado victims and murdered children have brought it on themselves. People in the heartland don't need to get right with the supernatural, they need to build good storm shelters and safe rooms and then use them.
I have decided to believe that the Sandy Hook victims got included here because of some weird bug in this paper's copy-editing or printing software, otherwise this question would have made me run screaming from my computer.
So yes, rational atheist though I am, I indulge in fantasy sometimes myself. My fretting keeps my daughters safe from harm — I call it preventive worrying. If I take an umbrella it won't rain. Leftovers that I eat because they are about to go bad contain no calories.
The difference between people like Piper and me is that I know when I am engaged in magical thinking.
How sad that a member of the clergy, or any other person in religious leadership, would have the theological audacity or lack of compassion to blame a tragedy on its victims. It is difficult for me to believe that a person of faith would make the kinds of statements attributed to Piper in relation to the destruction and death caused by recent tornadoes in Oklahoma. Although I have heard these kinds of misguided statements before, I am always stunned by them. The God I believe in has no such vengeful attributes.
Having officiated at a memorial service for the almost full-term, stillborn baby of two wonderful parents, I cannot believe that there was any fault that would have possibly justified her death. Nor can I imagine a sin black enough to punish two little boys by taking away their mother through her death from the ravages of cancer. Rabbi Harold Kushner shared in his book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," that the question is not why bad things happen, but what to do when they happen. To claim to know why bad things happen to others is, to me, the height of hubris.
My hope is that people of faith, laity and clergy alike, will find ways to comfort those who are suffering — not blame them for their misfortunes. If we do judge them harshly, perhaps we are the ones who should, like Job, be blamed for our pride. Biblical scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman, in his book, "God's Problem," said, "Our response should be to work to alleviate suffering wherever possible and to live life as well as we can." To that I would say, Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
This is a somewhat loaded question, but my immediate answer would be "no." No, I wouldn't say a natural disaster was asked for, and no, I wouldn't say the school shooting victims were more deserving to die than others. And how could anyone point the finger with any divine certainty anyway? It would just be a callous allegation.
Is it possible that our culture produces spiritually dead people who randomly murder their neighbors? Maybe, so perhaps then we as a whole nation are reaping an awful whirlwind.
In the Bible, there is that episode where God rained brimstone on Sodom for its pervasive wickedness against him, and it was destroyed (Genesis 19). But in Oklahoma, a fluke wind wound its way through a state that's on the very buckle of the Bible Belt, where 85% of citizens worship God. Why would God destroy his own? Which brings us to Piper. He quoted a very caring and spiritual verse, and if the reactionaries would first look before they leap and pile on, they wouldn't have anything to complain about. Piper referenced Job, of whom God opined, "there is no one on Earth like him; he is blameless and upright" (Job 1:8).
God loved Job and didn't "punish" him with familial misfortune. Piper was just reaffirming that bad things can happen to good people, and God isn't going about seeking whom he may destroy. How come a godly pastor quotes biblical Scripture for comfort and immediately he's demonized?
We live in a world of people and nature. Both require attentiveness. Are Oklahomans or Connecticuters worse sinners than those from states without twisters and shooters? No, for "all have sinned and fall short" (Romans 3:23). God had Job in mind with high opinion and God loves the world, but stuff still happens, and Earth is still not heaven.
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
I have a pet peeve. It is the Christians-name-natural-disaster-as-judgment-of-God story that inevitably is written when something bad happens. It is a pet peeve because someone else gets to define my faith to the public as something insensitive, narrow-minded, and guilt-evoking.