Bad Karma

People in Burma, a.k.a. Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, are blaming the cyclone that killed untold numbers, on bad karma: specifically, their brutal government (which is still blocking aid from reaching its desperate survivors) for killing protesting monks.

In thisthis Western story on the subject, notice how the reporter and those he interviews, including a Westernized Buddhist, keep confounding that wholly impersonal religion of law alone with the Christian God. They do not realize that theodicy–why would a good deity allow such things–hardly comes up in other religions, whose gods are often not personal at all, or if they are, they are not even assumed to be righteous:

After a natural disaster strikes in the United States, the question almost immediately arises: Where was God? Or, did God allow this to happen?

Half a world away, as Burma digs out from a devastating cyclone that experts say could claim 100,000 lives or more, the question — and answer — are quite different.

About 80 percent of Burma’s estimated 52 million people are Buddhist, and many there rely on the principle of karma to explain the storm, scholars say.

Specifically, many of Burma’s people believe Cyclone Nargis is a karmic consequence of military rulers’ brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks last fall, said Ingrid Jordt, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was once a Buddhist nun in Burma and maintains ties there.

“The immediate explanation was: This is retribution for killing monks,” Jordt said. “In any cataclysm, human beings seek to make sense of something that completely destroys the continuity of life. It’s an attempt to bring the world back into harmony.”

The word “karma” is often misunderstood by Westerners as one’s inescapable destiny, scholars say. In Sanskrit, the word means “action” and refers to the act that creates one’s fate, not fate itself. For Buddhists, particularly those in Southeast Asia, karma regulates morality as firmly as Newton’s law rules motion: To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. . . .

A distant echo of such ideas can perhaps be heard in Christian leaders who tied the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Katrina to sexual immorality in New York City and New Orleans.

American Zen Buddhist and author Brad Warner said blaming Burma’s cyclone on bad karma hews uncomfortably close to those ideas.

“To me it sounds like we’re just substituting karma for God,” he said.

And with so many innocent victims, karma seems a harsh and indiscriminate explanation, Warner said.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • WebMonk

    I’m not so sure that they’re confusing them so much as comparing them. There were/are many Christians who stated that 9/11 was retribution by God for the country’s sins. I have little doubt that the author too, would readily confuse the concepts of God’s punishment and karma, but from my reading of this article, I think he’s doing more of a contrast than an equating.

    The American Buddhist certainly didn’t like the two being conflated, and the article described the relationship as a “distant echo”.

  • WebMonk

    I’m not so sure that they’re confusing them so much as comparing them. There were/are many Christians who stated that 9/11 was retribution by God for the country’s sins. I have little doubt that the author too, would readily confuse the concepts of God’s punishment and karma, but from my reading of this article, I think he’s doing more of a contrast than an equating.

    The American Buddhist certainly didn’t like the two being conflated, and the article described the relationship as a “distant echo”.

  • kerner

    Web Monk:

    You beat me to it. This reminded me a lot of Christians after 911, or any catastrophe, claiming that it is God’s judgment on our society for tolerating evil.

  • kerner

    Web Monk:

    You beat me to it. This reminded me a lot of Christians after 911, or any catastrophe, claiming that it is God’s judgment on our society for tolerating evil.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    This gives witness to the truth that man-created religion–including Christianity discerned by reason, pietism, emotion, self-interest–it’s nothing but law-law-law.
    Christians who claim to love such a God only love Him as long as he’s punishing the other guy.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    This gives witness to the truth that man-created religion–including Christianity discerned by reason, pietism, emotion, self-interest–it’s nothing but law-law-law.
    Christians who claim to love such a God only love Him as long as he’s punishing the other guy.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    If God punished sin whenever and immediately upon human tolerance of evil, the Day of the Lord would have come immediately after the fall into sin. But the Lord provides a Savior. Every natural disaster is a reminder that we live in a fallen, sinful, corrupt, and disordered world. And every day we need our Savior. Next hour it may all end in God’s final judgment against all sin. Lord, have mercy. Time to write out those checks to help our favorite charity get Christian aid to those suffering people. Christ always breaks Karma.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    If God punished sin whenever and immediately upon human tolerance of evil, the Day of the Lord would have come immediately after the fall into sin. But the Lord provides a Savior. Every natural disaster is a reminder that we live in a fallen, sinful, corrupt, and disordered world. And every day we need our Savior. Next hour it may all end in God’s final judgment against all sin. Lord, have mercy. Time to write out those checks to help our favorite charity get Christian aid to those suffering people. Christ always breaks Karma.

  • Bruce

    Good points, y’all. My first thought was: “Yeah. in the Buddhist view God punishes the innocent people of Myanmar for the actions of the evil government, which–incidentally–survived.” How is that karmic?

    And oh, karma in Sanskrit as I was taught it has two meanings: “action” and “the results of action”. So the commun understanding is half right.

  • Bruce

    Good points, y’all. My first thought was: “Yeah. in the Buddhist view God punishes the innocent people of Myanmar for the actions of the evil government, which–incidentally–survived.” How is that karmic?

    And oh, karma in Sanskrit as I was taught it has two meanings: “action” and “the results of action”. So the commun understanding is half right.

  • Bruce

    “commun” = “common” in Monday-morning computerese.

  • Bruce

    “commun” = “common” in Monday-morning computerese.

  • CRB

    God punished His Son for the sins of all. By God’s grace alone a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ. Those who
    reject the gospel that can save them from the punishment which they deserve for their sins (eternal punishment in hell) suffer temporal punishment which can take the form of such so called, “naural disasters.”

  • CRB

    God punished His Son for the sins of all. By God’s grace alone a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ. Those who
    reject the gospel that can save them from the punishment which they deserve for their sins (eternal punishment in hell) suffer temporal punishment which can take the form of such so called, “naural disasters.”

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@7), are you saying that natural disasters do not harm believers?

    When the tower of Siloam fell, Jesus didn’t say it was “temporal punishment” for nonbelievers, though he used that disaster as a call to repentance. Absent a Biblical justification for doing otherwise, we should do the same.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@7), are you saying that natural disasters do not harm believers?

    When the tower of Siloam fell, Jesus didn’t say it was “temporal punishment” for nonbelievers, though he used that disaster as a call to repentance. Absent a Biblical justification for doing otherwise, we should do the same.

  • CRB

    No, not saying that at all.
    I’m just saying that God has in the past used these means to punish man, whether one believes the gospel or not. For the Christian, of course, the punishment is *only* temporal. And yes, I believe that such disasters
    may be a call to repentance to all people.

  • CRB

    No, not saying that at all.
    I’m just saying that God has in the past used these means to punish man, whether one believes the gospel or not. For the Christian, of course, the punishment is *only* temporal. And yes, I believe that such disasters
    may be a call to repentance to all people.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@9), my problem is with the notion that God uses natural disasters to “punish” people. If “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” — what are the believers being punished for?

    Christians are blessed to be able to consider difficult times as joys, not punishment, since through them God strengthens their faith. And yes, sometimes sinful acts will have natural results (if I take drugs, my health may be affected), but natural disasters are not such a result.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    CRB (@9), my problem is with the notion that God uses natural disasters to “punish” people. If “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” — what are the believers being punished for?

    Christians are blessed to be able to consider difficult times as joys, not punishment, since through them God strengthens their faith. And yes, sometimes sinful acts will have natural results (if I take drugs, my health may be affected), but natural disasters are not such a result.

  • CRB

    Yes, the “new man” is blessed to consider such things as joys, but also, since we “still have the old man haninging round our neck”, the “old man” is killed through such “chastisements” so that the “new man” comes forth more and more each day. So, I agree, the Christian is not being punished.

  • CRB

    Yes, the “new man” is blessed to consider such things as joys, but also, since we “still have the old man haninging round our neck”, the “old man” is killed through such “chastisements” so that the “new man” comes forth more and more each day. So, I agree, the Christian is not being punished.

  • Another Kerner

    Sproul wrote his wonderful book “Surprised By Suffering”
    some time back, but we might like to rehearse it again.

    Yancey wrote “Where is God When it Hurts”.

    Spurgeon once remarked that often “God’s grace comes riding into our lives on the dark horse of affliction”.

    Rutherford wrote that “Grace grows best in Winter” and that the thorn is never far from the rose.

    God is always in the trouble, is He not?

    2 Corinthians 1:3-4.
    “Blessed be God….the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we are ourselves are comforted of God.”

    When better than in a time of tribulation to step along side of others and tell them of the Savior……

  • Another Kerner

    Sproul wrote his wonderful book “Surprised By Suffering”
    some time back, but we might like to rehearse it again.

    Yancey wrote “Where is God When it Hurts”.

    Spurgeon once remarked that often “God’s grace comes riding into our lives on the dark horse of affliction”.

    Rutherford wrote that “Grace grows best in Winter” and that the thorn is never far from the rose.

    God is always in the trouble, is He not?

    2 Corinthians 1:3-4.
    “Blessed be God….the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we are ourselves are comforted of God.”

    When better than in a time of tribulation to step along side of others and tell them of the Savior……

  • WebMonk

    “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus”, is right up there with “God disciplines those he loves”.

    There’s not a necessary contradiction between the two, and I don’t see any point of conflict with God sending a disaster of some sort as discipline (not the same as punishment, though if someone gets sticky about it, punishment could be considered a part of discipline), even on those for whom “there is no condemnation”.

    I have some major disagreements with claiming that disasters are punishments for pick-your-favorite-sin, but saying a disaster could be a discipline doesn’t have a fundamental conflict with God’s Word. The accuracy and authority of people who seem to make those claims is pretty shaky though, and I disbelieve them just on principal even when they say water is wet.

  • WebMonk

    “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus”, is right up there with “God disciplines those he loves”.

    There’s not a necessary contradiction between the two, and I don’t see any point of conflict with God sending a disaster of some sort as discipline (not the same as punishment, though if someone gets sticky about it, punishment could be considered a part of discipline), even on those for whom “there is no condemnation”.

    I have some major disagreements with claiming that disasters are punishments for pick-your-favorite-sin, but saying a disaster could be a discipline doesn’t have a fundamental conflict with God’s Word. The accuracy and authority of people who seem to make those claims is pretty shaky though, and I disbelieve them just on principal even when they say water is wet.

  • CRB

    Another Kerner #12
    And it was Luther who said, “Prayer, meditation and trial make a theologian.” !! :)

  • CRB

    Another Kerner #12
    And it was Luther who said, “Prayer, meditation and trial make a theologian.” !! :)