What prophets rarely get to say

004I think, at this point, it’s safe to say that we can put the Ray Nagin and Pat Robertson thing to bed for a while.

But you know, you just know, that this issue will return. Right?

So what is the issue? What was this all about?

I have been watching to see how many journalists would get this right, how many would connect the wild news that came out of New Orleans with all of that wild news that keeps coming out of Virginia Beach.

Nagin’s remarks did create a bit of a firestorm, but most of it focused on race. That’s bad enough, but the combination of religion and race created an even hotter brew. I am, frankly, amazed that this story didn’t draw more coverage and commentary.

As you would expect in this day of niche media, it was a conservative commentator who connected the dots most bluntly. Thus, Linda Chavez dared to imagine Salt Lake City being wrecked by an earthquake:

Much of the city’s population fled, many never to return. Then imagine the mayor began wistfully extolling the virtues of his town in barely veiled racial euphemisms. “Salt Lake City has always been a plain vanilla town,” he says, at first only before audiences he thinks will warm to the message.

Then, as the city starts to rebuild, the mayor hints he’s not thrilled many of the jobs to rebuild the city are going to Latinos and blacks, many of whom did not live in Salt Lake before disaster struck. Before long, the mayor gets bolder in his appeals. “It’s time for us to rebuild Salt Lake City — the one that should be a vanilla Salt Lake,” he says. “I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are, this city will be vanilla at the end of the day. This city will be a majority white city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have Salt Lake City any other way. It wouldn’t be Salt Lake City.”

Now would that be a hot news story? Yes. But what we are interested in, with the link to the ongoing Robertson coverage, is that last part of the equation, the part that says “It’s the way God wants it.”

In traditional Christian theology, it is much safer for a person to stand up and say “God is judging me” or even “God is judging my house” than it is to say “Those folks over there are really nasty sinners and that’s why God dropped a hurricane on them.”

This is part of what made Nagin’s speech interesting. He did attempt to speak to the black community that is his base about its own problems, as well as speak — knowing the mind of God — about the sins of others (including people in the White House). Does this make a difference? Imagine that Robertson went on the 700 Club and said that he believed he could see God’s judgment on his own ministry for some specific reason or another.

Would that be news? I imagine so. However, would that statement of judgment be as off the wall, theologically, as Robertson saying that God has decided to take down an Israeli prime minister? No, it would not. Christian tradition stresses that it is better to judge yourself, rather than another person. Rare is the prophet who has a divine calling to put a spotlight — exclusively — on the sins of others. And even these warnings are best expressed face to face, rather than in headlines or on cable television.

Brace yourselves, but an editorial this week in the Boston Globe got this right:

Nagin was speaking at an event commemorating the accomplishments of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ”I just want to do God’s will,” King said on the night before he was murdered. King tried to live out his belief in God without claiming to have a direct line to the deity. Those who think they know the divine might better show it by their actions to help others, not by invoking his name as a punishment or excuse.

mgo15This is half the equation, of course. King did preach many a sermon in which he boldly pointed out clashes between biblical faith and the cultural realities on the street. The media tend to get mad at conservative people — be they popes or TV preachers — who “go to meddlin’” and issue the same kinds of warnings about the sins that they see around them in the culture and even in their own flocks.

However, a Catholic bishop has a right (some would still say a duty) to defend Catholic teachings about the sacraments, even if one of the Catholics whose ox gets gored happens to be running for president (or mayor of New York City). This is not the same thing as what Robertson and Nagin said.

Let’s take one more shot at this. It would be one thing for a religious broadcaster to say that abortion is wrong and Americans must — for the following reasons of science, justice and nonviolence — consider banning it. There are centuries of social and doctrinal reasons to say that and engage in that debate (and people on the other side can make their case as well, naturally).

It is something else to say this: God made that hurricane strike that city, killing a wide variety of people, because these civic leaders failed to pass the following law against abortion which, by the way, I happen to be advocating at the moment.

Rare is the prophet who is called by God to connect those dots. History tells us that they tend to be humble people who judge themselves first and announce God’s judgment on others with tears and sorrow. Even these prophets say “repent” more than “I told you so.”

Thus ends the sermon.

That is, until Robertson or somebody else gets fired up and we face the same media storm again. You know, you just know, that it’s coming. Right?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://janvbear.blogspot.com Jan Bear

    You’ve captured what made me angry about so many religious commentators (right, left, traditional, modernist) after 9/11 — “They deserved it.” Some actually said, “We deserved it,” but since they obviously hadn’t had to jump from a 100th-story window, it still came down to “they.”

    Some tried to soften it with, “It was a wake-up call,” which is a little better — although the 3,000 dead will presumably “wake up” elsewhere.

    Only someone who lost his own home in a hurricane has any moral standing to say, “God sent us a message by taking our homes away.” And even then it would be better to say, “God sent me a message by taking my home away.” How do I know what God is saying to Joe Smith who just lost his family in a traffic accident in Omaha?

  • Stephen A.

    Ditto to what Jan said.

    Further, while reporters should question (or at least highlight) those who say they know God’s mind on this or that issue or event, we should give a wide berth to those who say they have learned something on a deeper spiritual level about God and their relationship to God through an event, and be sensitive to that.

    As for politicians, it’s very amusing to hear them getting into the “God’s-will-guessing” game. It would be good if they tried to guess the will of the voters for a change.

  • http://www.herbely.com/2005/10/workplace_spiri.html Herb Ely

    Lincoln got it right in the conditional sentence from his 2nd inaugural address: “Yet, if God wills that it (the civil war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”. (Psalm 19:8)

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