Not too long ago Pat Robertson claimed that the increase in tornadoes in the country was due to the fact that people weren’t praying enough. He thought the Haitians deserved their suffering following the recent earthquake too because of a deal he feels they made with the devil when they wickedly decided to overthrow their own slaveowners in the early 1800s. Ken Hamm, the director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, similarly argues that all suffering is caused by human moral depravity. We always get, in other words, what we deserve.
It wouldn’t even be worth refuting such reprehensible theology except for the fact that it is not altogether uncommon. I do not doubt that we give God no end of reasons to be disappointed in us. And yes I believe in the persistence of human sin. But surely among God’s great disappointments is how frequently we rush to facile interpretations of history and glib judgment of others, finding causal explanations for events that allow us to escape our responsibility to react in compassion to the suffering of others. For if God feels anything for us, we can only hope it begins with compassion.
What is perhaps particularly insidious about this kind of theology is how consistently it denies any human responsibility for influencing the scale, frequency, or impact of natural disasters, evidence of which abounds. We know that because of reckless and unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases (the U.S. being the chief per capita offender), we are increasing the likelihood of extreme weather patterns in the world. That is not to say, of course, that we cause the rain to fall, the wind to blow, or the earth to shake. But we cannot pretend that these events are merely chance or purelyprovidential. Both attitudes shield us from our accountability and our answerability.
We know that the poor are the most vulnerable to extreme weather. Places like Haiti or the US South have long histories of human injustice, environmental and human exploitation, and desperate efforts to survive, all of which has rendered people more vulnerable to large-scale suffering in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, or tornadoes. These are people who in their deep poverty have had their resources taken by others and have had to scramble for sources of energy amid impoverished soils and denuded forests, polluted air, land vulnerable to mudslides, and homes and neighborhoods more exposed to the elements. These are histories that have their roots in human choices, in human violence, and in human indifference.
Fortunately many rush to the aid of those affected by such “acts of God,” as the insurance companies like to call them, but we ought to ask ourselves some tough questions about prevention. One Episcopal minister wonders how long we can continue to pluck people out of what he calls the “river of woe” before we head upstream and try to find out what or who is throwing them in in the first place. We often hear the mantra that to give a man a fish is to feed him for a day but to teach him to fish is to feed him for a lifetime. I suppose it might be useful to apply this principle to humanitarian aid. To help men and women in a moment of crisis is to help them for a day but to work for a more just and sustainable world where people and ecosystems alike are healthier, more self-sustaining, and less vulnerable to the negative effects of human choices is to help future generations.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers about how to help. At least we know that certainly education, particularly of women, seems to be key. But I do think it is naïve to assume that individuals can help themselves under any circumstances just as long as they are taught self-reliance. The world’s worst problems and many of humanity’s saddest tales of suffering prove over and over again how complexly interconnected we all are on this planet and how difficult it is for people to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps when they are stuck in the morass of an environment we have degraded by our own acts.