“To listen to lots of Christians—God must be a real a-hole.” – A non-Christian friend
When a series of devastating hurricanes struck in September, sitcom actor turned evangelical celebrity Kirk Cameron took to social media to remind us that the series of massive hurricanes currently leveling large swaths of the planet—are just God trying to tell us something.
In a video recorded at the Orlando Airport (on his way out of the area, btw), Cameron sermonizes:
When he (God) puts his power on display, it’s never without reason. There’s a purpose. And we may not always understand what that purpose is, but we know it’s not random and we know that weather is sent to cause us to respond to God in humility, awe and repentance.
The storms are not random, he says, they are on purpose—God’s purpose. They are intentional creations. Never mind that scores of people have been killed, hundreds of thousands left homeless, and many in these very moments enduring unimaginable fear, Kirk wants you to know that God did it to you—and well, you need to figure out why.
This is the Christian Right’s go-to move. For decades celebrity evangelists and Bible Belt pastors have appointed themselves sanctified meteorologists; telling us why a loving but angry God is pummeling His children with tsunamis, tornadoes, and floods. They blame the abortionists and the gays and the Democrats, for the Creator of the Universe dialing up some funnel clouds and tidal waves and tearing up the place—so you’ll want to repent from whatever it is you did that pissed him off. (I mean, sure millions of otherwise innocent people are being devastated in the process of punishing a small segment of the population, but hey God works in mysterious ways.)
Cameron’s variation on this theme is more subtle than some of his preacher friends but just as toxic. It places the burden on individual people to psychoanalyze God; to somehow discern what He is telling them specifically in weather events that wreak havoc across miles and for multitudes. Talk about an ego trip: figuring out why deadly storms causing billions of dollars of damage—is somehow about you.
A few years ago I was having a rough week, I was exhausted, and really wasn’t feeling like speaking on Sunday. (Yes, pastors sometimes pray for snow days too.) That Saturday evening we were hit with a powerful winter ice storm that shut the whole city down for the weekend. When I got the news that services were cancelled, for a split-second I exhaled an involuntary “Thank you!,” realizing almost immediately how ridiculous that was; that I was somehow subconsciously connecting the dots between this destructive weather event—and my personal fatigue. It was as if I was saying, “God, thanks for paralyzing the city, cutting power to thousands, and leaving everyone house bound so that I could have a day off!”
In his first Sunday preaching after the devastation in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, Pastor Joel Osteen said to his megachurch congregation which included many new refugees, “The reason it may seem like God is not waking up is not because he’s ignoring you, not because he’s uninterested, it’s because he knows you can handle it.”
So (Joel claims), God loves and respects these folk’s strength so much—he displaced them, destroyed their belongings and pets, and killed their neighbors. (A pat on the back or a new car would have been sufficient.) I’m not sure that’s a God I’m interested in and I know it isn’t a God that non-Christians will be compelled to seek: one who sounds like an abusive parent or partner: “I love you so I hurt you.”
A non-Christian friend commenting on Cameron’s video today said to me:, “So, according to Conservatives, this year God elected Trump, killed a girl in Charlottesville, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes—He sounds like a real a**hole.” My friend, like many people, sees people like Kirk Cameron or Jerry Falwell or Joel Osteen and is certain he wants no part of that kind of malignant religion.
Christians, for all sorts of reasons it’s really precarious business trying to use any painful or deadly events as a platform to preach—among them:
1) We really have no idea what God does or doesn’t do, and just how if at all, God works in weather patterns and mass shootings and widespread tragedy. It’s more than likely God has nothing directly to do with any of it, but in the absence of surety, we should choose silence.
2) People who are wounded and grieving and heartbroken need to be cared for and comforted and embraced—they don’t need any armchair theology about why this is a good thing, or how it’s a Divine personal message, or what God might be personally saying to them. It’s one thing for a victim to seek and speculate on such things for themselves, but something else for us to do it for them.
3) By trying to interpret natural disasters and terrible circumstances, we easily convert them into a sort of weaponized religious propaganda, we end up assigning to God all our fears and prejudices and hangups—we run the risk of believing and making other people believe, that God is as much of a jerk as we are.
I can barely figure out how my microwave works, let alone interpret how a horrific weather event is being wielded by God to teach you or me or gay couples a lesson—and I’d feel like a reckless fraud pretending I know what’s happening. I guess guys like Kirk Cameron and Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson know better, though I’m doubtful.
It’s ironic that Cameron refers to the book of Job. When Job loses everything and is stricken with grief, at first his friends show wisdom by simply sitting with him in his grief. Only later do they fall into the temptation of placing blame and playing God.
Maybe we who claim faith should refrain from pretending we understand how this world works when it comes to faith and pain and suffering.
Maybe we should admit the mystery, discomfort, and the tension that spirituality yields in painful, terrifying times.
Maybe when people are being terrorized by nature or by the inhumanity around them, instead of shouting sermons at them—we should shut up and simply try to be a loving, compassionate presence.
Maybe we should stop trying to make God into something as petty, hateful, judgmental, and cruel as we are.
If the God you’re following and preaching to people in their times of pain is an a-hole—it’s probably not God at all.
It’s probably just you.