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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

God's Payback

Some figures on the religious right, including some within the orthodox Jewish community, claim that Katrina was God's payback for everything from the U.S. pressuring Israel to withdraw from Gaza, to the California legislature's embrace of same sex marriage, to a judge's decision concerning the word's "under God" in the Pledge.

(This is by no means the mainstream opinion within orthodox Judaism, by the way.  That is something worth clearing up at the outset.)

Let us assume for a moment that these fanatical claims are true.  Why on earth would anyone want to associate with a God who murders hundreds of innocents, displaces and impoverishes thousands more, and causes the rest of the havoc associated with Katrina--for no reason other than payback for sins that these individuals did not commit?  And wouldn't we be forced to conclude that God just hates poor people, blacks especially, such that they pay the heaviest price for the sins of the rest of society?

I always thought that disasters like Katrina are likely to make people more agnostic rather than more strident in their religious beliefs.  Perhaps I was wrong.

Posted by Hillel Levin on September 21, 2005 at 01:49 PM in Hillel Levin | Permalink


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I am pretty well versed in the contours of the theodicy debates and difficulties (at least insofar as they relate to judaism, but more generally as well), and I certainly understand that I didn't invent the question I pose in the post.

My point is that the application of the retributivist theory to this case, and in the way I cited, is quite disgusting--and it leads only to the conclusion that God has no scruples whatsoever.

However, I reject your "obviousness" distinction between the drowning of the Egyptians and the affects of Katrina. If you read the link, you will see that the true believers find the link between Katrina and Gaza to be pretty evident: roughly the same proportion of Americans was displaced by Katrina as Israeli Jews displaced by the withdrawal. And they have scriptures to back them up. (There's always a good line for everything, isn't there?) I think this is why most mainstream theologians reject the idea that we can discern why bad things happen (even though they affirm that they happen, at least in part, as a result of human failings--a principle that no reasonable reading of the scriptures can deny).

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Sep 21, 2005 4:52:23 PM

Back when the disaster du jour was the tsunami, Dissemination discussed an aspect of the issue here: http://www.dissemination.org/archives/2005/01/scale_and_the_p.html. Scroll past the trackback spam to read the few comments as well.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Sep 21, 2005 4:01:38 PM

Umm, what Dennis said.

But seriously, natural disasters raise all sorts of questions of theodicy. Why does God allow bad things to happen? Are they necessarily a sign of God's wrath? Or are they just natural occurrences? Questions of theodicy have been staples in theological debate for millennia.

At my other blog, which deals with religious issues, theodicy has come up a few times. First, my co-blogger Nate Oman suggested that one peculiarly Mormon response to the questions of theodicy can be distilled from (I'm not kidding) contract law principles. (See http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=749 ). (Whether this is a good theory, or is the result of Nate reading too much Corbin, I will leave for others to decide). More recently, Nate suggested that theodicy is a bad immediate reaction to Katrina. (See http://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php?p=2560 ).

The various answers are many. I'm far from an expert in this area, but it's my understanding that most theologians believe that at least some bad natural acts come from sources other than God's direct action. Distinguishing between acts caused by God, and acts that God merely allows to occur, is often tough. And there are various reasons suggested why God allows bad things to happen. Some are retributivist, as the sources you cite. Others are utilitarian, suggesting that God always seeks to bring about the greatest overall good. Other answers that I'm familiar with assert that human agency is the greatest good, so God cannot generally intervene in human affairs; that human suffering is essentially illusory and fully compatible with God's goodness; that bad acts or events are a test of human character and a chance to prove ourselves to God; that God allows sadness to exist so that people can better appreciate happiness.

The retributivist theodicy of your link is, I think, something of an outlier. (However, it's certainly true that the Bible contains a number of accounts of essentially retributivist theodicy. Because of that, the idea will probably stay around forever.)

The problem with retributivist theodicy is determining exactly which of God's acts are the result of His anger. Connecting God's wrath to a particular event is often difficult. It's easy with scriptural accounts such as the Red Sea drowning the Egyptians after they chased the Israelites (after Moses had parted the Red Sea). A direct connection is pretty evident there. Any connection is much less obvious between, say, Katrina and U.S. support for the Gaza withdrawal.

Posted by: Kaimi | Sep 21, 2005 3:45:40 PM

You asked:

"Why on earth would anyone want to associate with a God who murders hundreds of innocents, displaces and impoverishes thousands more, and causes the rest of the havoc associated with Katrina--for no reason other than payback for sins that these individuals did not commit? "

Read Genesis again! You "associate" because God is scary. He doesn't handle rejection well.


Posted by: Dennis J. Tuchler | Sep 21, 2005 2:50:07 PM

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