You have seen some of the photos or video from Haiti this week. The devastation is horrendous, and the personal tragedy is wrenching. Parents frantically seek children; children frantically seek parents. Sometimes the finding is even worse than the searching. In a meeting I attended Thursday, the opening conversation was about how we’d all had to turn off the news; it was just too horrible to watch for long. That comes with a realization that those who are living it cannot, of course, turn it off.
Last week, a famous American preacher said publicly that the whole country of Haiti is “cursed” because its founders made a “pact with the devil” some 200 years ago. Putting his inattention to historical accuracy aside, I want to ask, “cursed by whom?” Apparently, he means that Haiti is cursed by God, and that curse resulted in this horrific disaster and tremendous loss of life. The people need, the preacher says, a “massive turning to God.”
Really? That’s an interesting viewpoint which is completely at odds with Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus and his disciples passed a man who was born blind, those followers asked Jesus who should be blamed for the man’s disability—him or his parents. Jesus’ answer: neither.
On another occasion, some approached Jesus with a news bulletin: the governor had apparently sent thugs to kill several people while they were offering religious sacrifices. Jesus must have seen something in the news-bearers’ faces that made him realize they were expecting a particular kind of response from him.
He said: Wait a minute; you don’t think they were being punished for something they did, do you? And what about those people who were killed when a building collapsed? Do you think they are bad people and God was getting even? No. Absolutely not. They are no worse than anybody else. Certainly no worse than you. It was just a horrible thing that happened.
After hearing the preacher’s comments last week, it reminded me of a term that used to be included in homeowners’ insurance policies (is it still?). The phrase “act of God” was adopted by insurance companies to refer to natural disasters. Earthquakes, for example. Or tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, tornados. As an insurance term, I suppose it’s fine. As a theological construct, it’s troublesome at the very least.
Yes, God created the universe and all its laws of physics, the tectonic plates and how they move together and apart. But does God really decide to send a disaster on one of the poorest countries in the world (or any place else, for that matter)? The Bible raises the question over and over of why bad things sometimes happen, from the book of Job to the gospels. And it never gives us an answer. If the scriptures don’t answer this question, then why do we think we can?
So, are there acts of God when a natural disaster occurs? Absolutely. The acts of God are when someone shelters a child who has suddenly become a homeless orphan, when food is shared, when people donate money or goods, when neighbors use their bare hands to dig through the rubble in search of the living or the dead, when prayers are lifted out of desperation or hope.
Is God present in this disaster? Yes, of course. But not in the sense of causing it or using it as some sort of judgment. God is present in the good done by those who go about doing ordinary and extraordinary things.
Those are the acts of God.
© Melissa Bane Sevier