Related essay: “False Apostles are Smacked Down by Hurricane Irma!“
Human beings are wired to look for cause and effect. The car won’t start; that means the battery must be dead! That bell keeps ringing; there must be someone at the front door!
But we don’t always get it right. If, for example, you are one of those people who get to the the kitchen, only to say, “Now what did I come in here for?!”, a false explanation might be that, e.g., there must be a gas leak in the kitchen that causes temporary amnesia.
My favorite “false cause” story comes from the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Millions from Ontario through Pennsylvania went without power for hours. When it hit, a Conway, New Hampshire, boy was on his way home from school. As boys will do, he was hitting stuff with a stick. He swung with all his might at a telephone pole, and just as he connected, the lights went off all over town! He ran home distraught, telling his mother that the blackout was all his fault! In fact, young Jay had committed a common logical error, post hoc ergo propter hoc = if A happens, and then B happens, therefore A must have caused B.
The Eternal Search for Cause and Effect – it’s one of the things that makes us human. Along with our capacity to guess wrong.
We who believe in an all-powerful God usually side with the view that all the forces of nature are under his control. The Book of Job brings this home: “He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’” (Job 37:6) My read of this is that God is involved in the details, that is, he didn’t just start the earth spinning and let it take its course.
I do not rule out proximate causes: prevailing winds, air moisture, temperatures, currents, they all have a role to play in why a hurricane forms here and moves there. Some argue that the flood damage in Houston was exacerbated by relaxed zoning codes, which allowed too much building on what were known flood plains. Others have argued that climate change has led to more extreme storms and also the new normal of forest fires in the western US. But these data cannot help us with the larger existential question: Why here and not there? Why Houston and surrounding areas and not, for example, Alabama or Mississippi?
Wherever and whenever there is a disaster or a terrorist attack, a certain group of people (let’s call them the Prophetic First Responders) are immediately on the scene, to announce to the rest of us The Definitive Answer for Why God Made This This Happen. I mean those guys who claim to know just why 9/11 hit New York, or why Katrina hit New Orleans. What strikes me as strange is that, apart from the fringiest of the fringe, the PFR folks have been uncharacteristically muted this time. Even James Dobson, who as regular as clockwork politicizes such crises, has said of Harvey, “my prayer is that we as a nation would not politicize this crisis in any way” (!).
I have a theory, but if it’s true, I’m not happy with its implications.
My theory: the Prophetic First Responders decided that New York and New Orleans suffered because They Were Bad People; but that when the worst hurricane up to that time in US history hit Houston, it could not possibly have been God’s judgment, because, well, Texans Are Good Folk. This means that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment, but Hurricane Harvey was just God’s gracious way of letting the world see how helpful and neighborly Texans are. Like many religious groups throughout history, today’s PFRs look to be gauging the meaning of an event by whether it hit the Children of Light or the Children of Darkness.
Am I reading the evidence wrong? Help me out!
Of course, we all interpret the news through our own spectacles: that is why one Prophetic Responder can imply that terrorist attacks on the US happen because we don’t have prayer and Bible reading in schools or because we have transgender bathrooms. I have seen a few claim that the 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was primarily because of God’s judgment on the gay people who went there, but I’m glad to see that most Christians seem to be shouting that down; for once we say that, then should we not apply the same formula to the 2015 killing of nine at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston? And what in the world do we do with this headline, which happened at the same time as Hurricane Harvey?
The late Jerry Falwell, a Prophetic First Responder field leader, knew very well the cause of 9/11 (although he later apologized for voicing it): “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen.” His interviewer at the moment, Pat Robertson, agreed with him (and like Falwell, he later retracted it), and added the US court system to the guilty list for 9/11. [An Update – in Oct 2017, Robertson blamed the Las Vegas mass shooting on “disrespect,” for example, toward the very same US court system! I do not know how he can reconcile those two statements.] But there have been alternate interpretations, for example: “It may be no coincidence that it was the World Trade Center that was destroyed and the Pentagon that was hit. The former was the foremost symbol of the idol of finance. The latter is the symbol of self-dependent military might. And both are symbols of arrogance, unconcern and affluence.” He may be dead wrong as well, but at least he says “may be.” During the 2008 election, people reacted to Jeremiah Wright, Obamas’ pastor, for claiming that 9/11 was caused by American pride and arrogance. People condemned him for his impudence, although he was doing the equal and opposite of what conservatives have long done.
The Ebola outbreak? According to John Hagee, it was caused, unambiguously, by the Obama administration’s policy to allow the Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem.
Chick Publications, which shows total self-confidence when it comes to tying News Event A with Causation B, has no doubt as to why anything bad happens in the US: whether it is a storm, 9/11, or terrorist attack, it’s because the US has pressured Israel to “give away Israeli land to the Arabs in a bid for peace,” or as many of us would phrase it, “Pressure Israel to withdraw from property it had confiscated from the Palestinians, Egyptians, and Syria and built illegal settlements on.”
This, and the other “prophetic insights” I list here are, by the way, examples of what is technically known as Vaticinium ex eventu = a prediction that someone makes, but only after it is fulfilled. Now, if someone stated, before the fact, that God was going to hit Houston with a mega-hurricane in August 2017 because the Texans are too pro-gay, now that would be interesting. But the announcement after the fact is less than impressive.
The AIDS epidemic? From his vantage point in the US, one PFR announced that, “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” But if that is the case, how do we explain the fact that, in all the world, the hardest hit by AIDS are Christians from Sub-Saharan Africa?
In 1755, all Christendom was abuzz with the question, “Why did that earthquake destroy Lisbon, Portugal?” Everyone had their pet idea. A more recent puzzle: Why did the devastating 2005 earthquake hit Haiti and not another country? Pat Robertson, Dean of the Prophetic First Responders, knows just why. They had made a deal with the devil two centuries before! “And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’” The Haiti earthquake was the devil exacting his payment. Two centuries later. The Satanic Pact legend does not appear to even be historically true, but even if it were – if the quake had hit some other place, wouldn’t the PFRs have been able to come up with a theory as to Why? (I invite the reader to randomly choose out any city at all; to imagine – heaven forbid – a bad earthquake; and then, using Google for a few minutes, to “figure out” why the disaster had to hit there and not somewhere else. It’s easier than you think!)
People are wired to try to make sense of bad events. Unfortunately, a few of us crave credibility points by stepping in to say, “Yeah, I know the real reasons behind the headlines!” (I suspect it is no coincidence that the people who are Prophetic First Responders tend to be the same people who glom onto conspiracy theories.) As I’ve already indicated, I would not adopt a rationalistic or modernist viewpoint that these things simply occur without the participation of God. My objection lies in the area of “knowing” God’s mind by some elite group of modern Seers who are unafraid to stand up and announce “For this reason, period!” But unless your name is Jeremiah or Ezekiel, or unless you can cite us chapter and verse that says “This tornado is God’s wrath upon Common Core” or “This drought is because of this shooting of a specific unarmed civilian,” we should be scared to death to set ourselves up as God’s spokesperson:
Deut 18:20 – But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak…that prophet shall die. And Jer 23:16 – Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.
These verses should be equally applied to those who claim the gift of prophecy and those who do not, as both presume to reveal God’s mind.
Back to Texas: at least one person suggests it was karmic revenge on Texas for voting for Trump. Others blamed the Clinton supporters. In fact, if you overlay the map of the hurricane’s damage over the map of the 2016 election, clearly the disaster hit counties that went red or blue, so that whole theory seems to be a wash:
Thornton Wilder is well known for his play “Our Town,” but for my taste, his best work is the Pulitzer winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It begins with a fictional fatal disaster, one that brought havoc to the locals: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Father Juniper, a monk who witnesses the appalling scene, becomes obsessed with knowing “Why?” He believes in God’s justice, and so he is forced to conclude that these five precise individuals, no more and no less, had to die that day in order that God’s perfect plan be completed. He tries one calculation after another, and compiles a massive book with all his evidence, but after six years he is no closer to answering the big question. His is the “scientific” approach: if one could only gather all the facts, then the Effect will be seen to have an identifiable Cause.
For my part, I have been privy to one horrible car accident where people concluded, “Clearly, God punished him because of his overt sin and rebellion.” But many years later, I am too close for comfort to another accident involving wonderful people, one so appalling that I shrink from describing it. So, now what do I do with these dueling anecdotes? Likewise, after 9/11, there were plenty of people who stepped forward and showed that “God had kept them from going to the Twin Towers and thus spared them.” Yes, and God be praised! But these anecdotes cannot explain why many other Christians didn’t have to go back home to retrieve the forgotten briefcase, did get all green lights, did catch the last elevator to the top, and did made it to the office just in time for the attack.
With all respect to the families of hurricane victims, I suspect that one could work Father Juniper’s logarithms on the late hurricanes and come to the same confusing end that he did.
One of the great disasters in the Bible is the destruction rained down on the Cities of the Plain. But even with the supernatural revelation found in the Bible, the answer to “Why did God destroy Sodom and not, for example, Hebron?” is multifaceted; I count maybe a dozen explicit reasons in the relevant Bible texts. How much more, then, should we be cautious about assigning a simple and simplistic cause-and-effect to modern disasters?
Luke 13:1-5 is getting a good airing out this week, since it records Jesus’ clearest statement on the issue of “Why does one person suffer, and another escape?” He refers to two disasters that were fresh on the minds of his hearers: a tower that fell and killed 18, and a bloody attack on some religious pilgrims.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
The lessons are two: first, if some victims of a disaster are more sinful than those who escaped it, it’s only circumstantial; it is just as likely that they were more righteous than those who escaped. Second, disasters do remind us that bad things happen, and that in fact God has promised strong measures against those who continue in wickedness. My friend Robert Newman wrote some wise words about Harvey on Facebook a few days ago, and he cited the same passage. His conclusion, in part, was
…God has put us here on earth to love Him with all that we are and have, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Obviously, we are not doing this, so we deserve to be cut down. But we, the survivors of these disasters, are being given another chance; so use it!
We have our chance to walk with God today, and who knows if it will be our last one?
For the rest: God’s people should exercise extreme caution, walking in spiritual and intellectual humility, instead of this presumption and audacity. For the answer to our original question is that, only God knows why a disaster happens here and not there.
And A CALL TO ACTION:
We must end with another call of God on our lives, “What should we do toward those in great peril today?”
If we conclude, without proof, that Ebola or AIDS or a hurricane or a flood or an earthquake are specific God’s judgments for a specific reason, then logically this should mean that we should cross our arms and let his judgment flow, unmitigated by our own sentimentality. Of course, most Christians will turn around and say, “Even if, as I believe, God is punishing people with Ebola, still we should act to help its individual victims.” But I wonder if this is because the Holy Spirit pushes them to do the righteous thing, even when it contradicts the rough spots in their personal theology. God’s grace is such that our good deeds sometimes outstrip our limited ability to reason out why we should be doing them.
Our aid to the needy might include short-term help and rescue, but also longer term acts of justice, for example, whether developers should construct houses that are likely to fall when an earthquake hits.
Thank God for those who have been able to physically step in and help the flood victims; for the rest, I invite you to donate to the charity of your choice. Beware, there are scam artists who take advantage of your generosity; and please, listen to what the aid organizations tell you they need rather than sending in something you think people might want.
I might also raise the issue: We Americans might want to think more globally, given that, at the same time as Harvey the flooding in SE Asia has been exponentially worse and the resources are far fewer. That’s why our family decided that one good way to honor the Texas victims would be to donate to the Oxfam America’s fund for India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
And A PRAYER:
O God, our times are in your hand. In the midst of uncertainty lead us by your never-failing grace as we seek to be agents of healing and hope. Walk with us through difficult times; watch over us in danger; and give to us a spirit of love and compassion for those who suffer and mourn. And finally remind us that you have promised never to leave us so that even in the valley of the shadow of death your love may be felt, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
 That there is climate change in the past decades is undeniable, and to my knowledge not denied by any credible authorities. What is at issue is whether global warming has caused climate change (and experts always have distinguished the two concepts) and whether global warming and climate change are at least in part, “anthropogenic,” that is, caused by human activity, most likely the measurable increase in carbon emissions. I take it as highly probable that global warming is a reality, as is climate change; and that the evidence strongly suggests that the correlation between increasing CO2 in the atmosphere due to human activity and increasing global warming is due to causation, not coincidence.
 I leave for others the associated question known as “theodicy” = if God is good and all-powerful, then how do explain the presence of evil generally?
 There are always a bunch of rumors about who said what in times of crisis, and so I have taken great care to trace each quote back to its original source. For example, the rumors that Pat Robertson blamed Harvey on homosexuals, or Katrina on Ellen Degeneres both seem to be complete fakes. http://www.snopes.com/katrina/satire/robertson.asp. He did, however, state that his prayers kept Hurricane Gloria from hitting Virginia Beach in 1985 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Uj7Jj4F8vA
 There are exceptions: Rick Wiles, radio provocateur, implies that Houston is underwater because they are one of the Top 5 Gay-friendly cities in the US. https://soundcloud.com/rightwingwatch/rick-wiles-hurricane-harvey-is-punishment-for-houstons-affinity-for-sexual-perversion. As is often the case with these statements, Wiles relies on innuendo (I’m just asking questions!) rather than direct language. He also seems to have some otherwise unknown metric for measuring which cities are the most gay. Oh, and the “kill the gays” (by stoning) pastor Kevin Swanson pointed to the same cause for Harvey. http://www.towleroad.com/2017/09/kevin-swanson-hurricane/ Beyond this are all the so-called Weather Truthers, eg, Alex Jones, who believe that Hurricane Harvey was a manmade disaster, a plot by the boys down at the chemtrail laboratory, or HAARP, or FEMA, or the lizards, or the Zionists, or the NWO, or the Bush family, or the Illuminati, or Heaven knows what, and that they are doing it to accomplish, again, who knows what. These are the Crackpot Theory First Responder; “Here be dragons,” as the maps used to say: if I were to get involved with trying to understand and refute these narratives, I truly fear that my mind might get stuck there and that I might never find my way back out.
 According to Dobson, the Sandy Hook shooting was God’s judgment against gay marriage, among other things. http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/dobson-connecticut-shooting-was-god-allowing-judgment-to-fall-upon-us-for-turning-our-back-on-him/
 http://www.drjamesdobson.org/resources/culture-watch?=hp-read, italics added.
 http://www.jpost.com/Christian-News/Christian-Pastor-warns-Ebola-is-Gods-Punishment-for-Obama-dividing-Jerusalem-379207 “There are grounds to say that judgment has already begun, because he, the president, has been fighting to divide Jerusalem for years now. We are now experiencing the crisis of Ebola.” Again, note the use of innuendo rather than direct statement: He doesn’t say, A caused B; rather, “Here is A, here is B” and you draw your conclusions. Pat Robertson made much the same link between Jerusalem and natural disasters in America: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DHm70W5_oU&sns=em. And here is a man who says that Irma was God’s judgment on Donald Trump for not (at that point) moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. https://charismanews.com/opinion/standing-with-israel/67231-prophetic-perspective-does-israel-have-anything-to-do-with-all-these-hurricanes
 This is widely attributed to a person I mention elsewhere on this page, but as I cannot definitively trace it to its source, I leave it as anonymous. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/18/AR2007051801392.html
 In the context of the event, Gen 18:20 says broadly that God is concerned “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave”; the verb “outcry” implies that people are complaining because of what the cities are doing against them. Gen 18:22-33 implies that fewer than five righteous people could be found in Sodom; Gen 19:1-11 describes the attempted attack on the angels, but in 19:13 they state that God had sent them to destroy it even before that incident (I note that, Genesis does not say the men of Sodom were “homosexuals,” but I do think it’s clear that they were going to violate them sexually; perhaps as a show of force?); Jer 23:14; 49:18; Ezek 16:49-50 (practices which might explain the “outcry” of people mentioned in Gen 18:20); 2 Peter 2:6-8; very surprisingly, only late in the canon, in Jude 7, is there a statement that the cause for their judgment was sexual sin; they practiced “sexual immorality” and “went after other flesh” (a more literal rendering than the ESV), which is probably, not definitively, a reference to homosexual acts; also Rev 11:8. The other passages, and there are several, mainly use Sodom as an example of destruction, but without mentioning why it was destroyed.
“Why Would a Hurricane Hit Texas, and not, for example, Alabama?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica