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God and earthquakes and putting Robertson in context

January 25, 2010

Excellent piece in the NYT by James Wood. Wood looks at the “earthquake sermons” of centuries past in which fiery preachers blamed natural disasters on the sins of the victims, which helps put Pat Robertson’s controversial comments in context (though he certainly doesn’t excuse PR’s statements).

Wood also looks critically at President Obama’s remarks (a variation on there but for the grace of God go I). Robertson basically said the Haitians had it coming for making a pact with the devil (to get the French out. Don’t you know, Satan routinely offers his services in such political matters.) So in that respect, God is an angry, interventionist God. But, as Wood notes, Obama’s explanation paints God as an entity who protects Americans from Haitian earthquakes. Which is not so nice either.

Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors?

The president was merely uttering an idiomatic version of the kind of thing you hear from survivors whenever a disaster strikes: “God must have been watching out for me; it’s a miracle I survived,” whereby those who died were presumably not being “watched out for.” That President Obama did not really mean this — he clearly did not — is telling, insofar as it suggests how the theological language of punishment and mercy lives on unconsciously, well after the actual theology has been discarded.

I recommend reading the entire piece. It’s a wonderful look at the theological language we use to respond to catastrophic events.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 9:09 am

    I got a bigger chuckle out of actor Danny Glover’s remark that global warming caused the earthquake. For some, apparently including Glover, AGW also is a kind of religion.

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