Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Where is God in Natural Disasters?

As yet another Earthquake rocks the world with hundreds dead and thousands injured in China, it’s natural to wonder. Where is God? Did God cause this tragedy, or allow it to happen in some sense? Is there any meaning to be found in tragedy? With Earth Day fast approaching, what do natural disasters teach us about nature?

Luke records the famous story of Jesus calming a storm. Maybe there is something in this story that could calm the storms of our minds in the midst of natural disasters. Of course it all depends on how you read the story. If you read it literally, you might imagine that Jesus (God!) had supernatural authority over nature. He could cause a storm, and he could end a storm. This literal reading presents a dilemma. If God can cause and prevent a storm, why would God choose to murder so many innocent people?

Some fundamentalist Christian leaders suggest that storms are sent by God to teach sinners a lesson in morality. Several religious groups claimed that Katrina was sent by God as a result of a gay pride event due to begin two days after the storm. Pat Robertson predicted on his “700 Club” show that disasters, including hurricanes, would descend on Orlando, Fla., because of gay pride events there. He was quoted as saying, “It’ll bring about terrorist bombs, it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”

Janis Walworth pointed out in 1998 that the evidence doesn’t always support this interpretation. She conducted some studies to test the notion that God may employ natural disasters or even terrorists to destroy areas that would dare to offer gay people the same civil liberties as other citizens. In fact evidence suggested that states with higher gay populations are less likely to be hit by a tornado. She also illustrated that states with higher numbers of Protestants are more likely than states with higher numbers of Catholics to be hit by a tornado. Within the protestant denominations, Baptists seem to be most in danger. Janis then re- directed the question. She wondered if it could be that Baptists and other Protestants purposely flock to states that have lots of tornadoes. That then led to her as yet unpublished study on the correlation between IQ and religious affiliation.

Jokes aside, what sort of a God would kill people because of a sexual orientation they didn’t choose and don’t use to harm others? What sort of a God would play Russian Roulette with people’s lives and with the ecology just to prove a point?
Liberal religion has taken a different approach to miracle texts such as the calming of the storm. It reads the text as text, and not necessarily as history. For example, it might interpret storms as metaphoric, representing the miserable social status of a fisherman in that culture. A story about a leader calming a storm would represent the inspiration of Jesus to live boldly and unselfconsciously and do what you can to calm the storms of oppression.

Bishop Spong suggests that the stories of Jesus walking on water and calming the storm were ways of connecting early Christians with the belief that the presence of God or Ground of Being was somehow manifest in the person of Jesus. First century Christians would liturgically reenact and retell Hebrew stories such as Joshua crossing the Jordan, and in time these turned into miracle stories such as walking on water and calming storms.

How might a liberal reading of the Bible make meaning out of natural disaster? It would most likely reject the idea that God sent the storm. It might connect the social and political context of the disaster, looking at issues of race, poverty, ecology and government intervention as the lessons of the storm rather than suspecting that an external God was sending the storm for any particular reason.
So where is God in the storms of life? Listen to the first words of the Hebrew Bible-
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

What a powerful image. God is actively present, within and between, every aspect of nature, like wind over water. God is present with those who suffer. God is not only experienced in the picnics by waterfalls, God is manifest even in deadly storms. God is all and in all, not as cause but as presence.

God didn’t send the storm. God is the storm. God is present in the tension between natural evolution and human progress. God is the interconnectedness of all the causes and contexts of storms and ecology.

Or else maybe a natural disaster is an ecological act of self correction. Global warming, over population, the poor planning of a city and so many other factors conspire in an act of self correction. It’s a sad fact of our world that the wealthier and more powerful people live at higher elevations and so often avoid tragedies such as floods. Human consumption and abuse, mandated according to a literal reading of the Bible, may have forced nature to self correct.

The universe is living and expanding, and not as a closed system that was created once and then only altered when a supernatural and external deity invades it. The earth is naturally evolving; dying and being reborn constantly. As Meister Eckart said, “God is creating the entire universe fully and totally in this present now. Everything God creates, God creates now all at once.”

Mindless consumption makes no sense in a living universe.

This is an awesome piece by Michael lightweaver called “Tsunamis- A Channeling From Big Mama.”
“You know something, I'm fed up with you guys. You take everything SO PERSONALLY. It doesn't occur to most of you that I am ALIVE. Yes, I'm a living being just like you. I'm continually evolving, growing, changing, etc., and you are a part of my growth as you are a part of your own process. When I stretch, yawn, hiccup, or sneeze you think it's some kind of collective punishment for your “sins.” Did it ever occur to you that that is a bit arrogant? You worry about “Earth Changes” -- no such thing except for the fact that I am continually changing. It's not an event. It's an ongoing process that you don't understand because of your fruit fly mentality.

Last week some guy found fossilized footprints of a dinosaur which roamed the suburbs of Washington, DC. 100 million years ago. That was long before you were even a suggestive sparkle in the Creator’s eyes. Did you know that the total life span of a fruit fly is seven days? Seven days! OK, so let’s say this guy John-the-fruit-fly is born one Monday morning in late October. On Thursday, the first freeze of the season hits. John tragically freezes to death. Now one could take a fruit fly perspective and claim that this was some kind of punishment for John’s many fruit fly misdeeds or -taking a somewhat larger view of the matter - one could see that John had the unfortunate bad luck - or chose at some level - to be born four days before the first killing frost. Do you have any idea how old I AM? Your life span isn't much more than a fruit fly and your whole sojourn here as a species isn't much more than a blink of the eye to me.

When Mama moves, she shakes things up. It's just that you don't have an “eonic” sense of time, so you tend to take it personally. Get Over It! One hundred years from now, you and probably everyone you know will be dead.... and on to greater adventures. I will still be here, yawning, hiccupping & sneezing long after your species ceases to even be a memory around this place. Put your daily petty dramas into THAT perspective. Why does it ALWAYS HAVE TO BE ABOUT YOU? Did it ever occur to you how much of your energy and money is focused on killing other species on this planet - and I'm not just talking about bug spray and chicken farms. You are spending over $175 million dollars a day to destroy Iraq while 14,000 children starve to death every day. That means that more children have starved to death so far since 12/26/04 - just from neglect - than all of those who died in the big wave. And then you applaud yourself for sending two days worth of war costs for relief. NOW THAT IS SOMETHING YOU SHOULD TAKE PERSONALLY! YES, I'M PISSED - BIG TIME. But God and I haven't conspired to punish you. You seem to do a fairly good job of that yourself. I'm just fed up with taking the blame - along with GOD - for just being who I am and doing what I have been doing for the last several millions of years; long before you came on to the scene. And though I may not sound very compassionate at the moment, I do feel the pain of EVERY ONE OF MY CREATURES who suffers. Did you know that I sent a warning to let everyone know that I was about to sneeze? Did you see the news? The only ones who heard me were the wild animals in India and some “primitive” tribal people on a remote island. They all went to higher ground just before the wave hit and none of them died. Why didn't the rest of you hear me??? So, I let you know I'm about to sneeze, you don't hear me because you aren't listening, and it wreaks havoc. And then you have the audacity to blame GOD! Give me a break. Maybe you should just start listening..... Or even better, maybe you should ask yourself what you are doing that is so important that you aren't listening....”

My opinion is that there is no divinely ordained purpose to a disaster that kills so many people. It is just part of an ever-changing universe. However, it’s also my sense that there are some important lessons we can choose to take out of storms. The main one is to stay alert; pay attention.

That is the half truth of all religions, to watch for the signs or cycles of life. The falsity of all religions is their attempt to paint a single portrait of life’s meaning which is divinely ordained and immutable. The common thread of all religions is compassion. Compassion grows out of our understanding that we are not separate from those who suffer and we are not separate from nature.

You experience God in the storms of life when you realize the interrelated causes and consequences of natural disasters, when you feel the pain of victims as if they are your own family, and when you step out in compassion to help those who suffer.

Seed of Wisdom

The universe is on its own journey of growth and change. The question for humans is whether we will collaborate in this change or whether we will be forced to adapt in response to overwhelming crisis. May we have the foresight to choose the path of collaboration. Take responsibility for your part in the future of the earth. Live mindfully today.

Say to yourself: My choices to live mindfully make a huge difference to the whole planet.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Long Flowing Hypocrisy: The Church and Discrimination

Prominent atheists, Dawkins and Kitchens, have called for the arrest of the Pope for crimes against humanity. I have some sympathy for their perspective, although I wouldn’t limit this to the Pope. Having had my own experience of the brick wall bureaucracy that is the Anglican Church, I would extend their call to sexual criminals in all churches. Several years ago I advocated for a young guy who had suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of an Anglican priest. He asked me to accompany him through the settlement negotiations with the Anglican Church. It was an unsatisfactory experience for this young guy and I could understand his frustration.

I tracked the particular priest as he was moved around the world to different posts, including a College Campus. There was no accountability from the priest and no protection for innocent victims. It was exactly the same situation that the Catholic Church is now facing up to.

I pondered all of this in the light of Jesus' parable of the widow and her offering at the temple. Tens of thousands of visitors would have travelled past the temple's golden trumpets which doubled as money scoops during Passover. The story tells us that Jesus sat on the roadside and singled out one widow among the crowds who gave what for her would have been a generous donation. He notes her gift. More to the point he seems to be contrasting the poverty of the widow and the extravagance of the religious leaders (scribes) with their ornate long robes as they paraded through the streets.

I think I could safely say that at least ten times I have heard a sermon on this text and ten times I have been told to be just like the widow; give everything and do it with a generous heart. Submit to the church and give generously. The widow has become the pinup girl for unquestioned generosity.

Actually, I suspect the point of the story was the exact reverse. Don’t be like the widow. Question how the scribes could afford the best seats in the synagogues and invites to the most prestigious parties in town. They were dining on the meager rations of the widow and others like her. This was extortion. They had done nothing to support or care for the widow. In fact they had abandoned widows and others in their suffering. They lived the good life while widows were lost in the religious shuffle.

I’m here to break the pattern of decades of sermons and declare, DON'T BE LIKE THE WIDOW! Don't enable a system that ignores justice and keeps people trapped in a cycle of abuse.

The story of the widow is a savage critique of the first century temple system, which masqueraded as a spiritual home, yet fronted a system that cashed in on the co-dependence of those who had no power or education to challenge it. The temple was a religious system of domination and control. It trapped people in a system where they were classed as insider or outsider, included or excluded. Widows in this scheme were less than human partly because they were women, and even worse because they were women without men. The temple was a place of exclusion and domination.

Don't be like the widow. Fight for the widow. Stand against the systems which made her a poor and second class citizen in the first place; don't perpetuate them. Don't be like the widow! Liberate the widow. Don't enable an unjust system. Demand accountability from the people and institutions that should include and care for those who are suffering above all other institutions. Demand that sexual criminals are brought to justice. Demand that churches stop discriminating against people because of the gender, sexuality or free thoughts.

The response of church officials to sexual abuse brings to mind the hypocrisy of the scribes of Jesus day. The long flowing robes may boast extravagant colors and frills, but they also lack transparency and authenticity. Jesus said to the scribes (my translation) “get your hypocritical heads out of your long flowing pretentious robes and give power to those who suffer.” The church should take the teachings of Jesus seriously and get real about abuse. The church should treat all people with the utmost dignity and respect. The Vatican should stop hiding behind giant walls of bureaucracy and live by the law of the land. All churches should stop hiding behind the very same anti discrimination laws that it then ignores to discriminate against women and gay people.

The teaching and practices of churches should be brought out from behind their long flowing robes and brick wall bureaucracy and examined in the light of science, law and human decency. “The Bible says so” is not an adequate reason to justify injustice and discrimination. In fact a reading of the Bible in the context of Jesus’ priority for the poor demands justice and equality.