Fresh back from holiday, America's self-proclaimed "revival" preacher Glenn Beck attempted to give a theological explanation for the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Speaking on his radio program, Beck suggested that the catastrophic earthquake might be a "message being sent" by a higher power, God or Gaia. Beck postulated, "I'm not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes. I'm not not saying that either . . . there's a message being sent. And that is, 'Hey, you know that stuff we're doing? Not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it.' I'm just saying."
Like Pat Robertson and others before him, Glenn Beck's God is out to get you. God kills to cure. When we step out of line, God steps in bringing plague and catastrophe to get us back on the right track. Living by the motto "spare the rod and spoil the child," God's sees us as potential offenders for whom punishment is the only solution to our misbehavior.
While we may receive insights about our values in the midst of natural catastrophes, the God I follow is not behind the chaos and devastation we're witnessing in Japan. Certainly, our actions have consequences, but a tidal wave or a collapsed building—like the sun and rain or a collapsing tower, as Jesus reminded us—fall on the good and the evil, righteous and unrighteous, alike. At least that's what Jesus' said (Mt. 5:45; Lk. 13:4). God doesn't play favorites or choose enemies, but seeks to save all humankind.
There are enough images of God as punishing and violent. According to these images, God is a distant parent; more than that, God is an easily offended potentate, who metes out judgment but never feels the pain. This kind of God sends messages by killing children and senior citizens. If this God were human, we would indict "him" for murder and abuse.
Now, there are messages aplenty emerging from human decisions, and they have left their mark: planetary global warming, corporate greed, governmental policies that favor the rich while the poor beg for health care and decent jobs, destruction of arable soil and diminishing water supplies, and wars over oil and religious differences. No doubt, turning away from God has consequences: injustice, violence, and planetary destruction. When we turn away from God, we turn away from God's generosity and grace; we close our hands to all the gifts that God wants to give us and close our senses to beauty, love, and possibility.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that "only a suffering God can save." Alfred North Whitehead saw God as "the fellow sufferer who understands." This is what the incarnation is about, "God with us" changing the world with love and companionship. Philippians 2:5-11 suggests another kind of God: rather than claiming the power of Caesar, God saves by renouncing violence and taking on the pain of the world. God's glory is not found in coercion or fearful obedience, but identification with the cries of creation, both human and non-human.But, more than this, we are called to imitate the power that comes through love, humility, and generosity.
There's violence aplenty and destruction enough without bringing God into the picture as one more, albeit the greatest, source of chaos and destruction. The message, I believe, that God is sending in the midst of destruction—destruction God didn't cause—is one of compassion, generosity, and sacrifice on behalf of all who suffer, including our Japanese companions.