•   Natural Disasters

Is God's wrath at work in natural disasters?

Screen shot 2010-05-03 at 10.13.08 AM What do homosexuality, the health-care overhaul and British advertising standards all have in common? They're all things that have ticked God off, some religious leaders say, and he's venting his frustration with the angry fires of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Moscow's Interfax newswire reported that the Association of (Russian) Orthodox Experts called the April 14 eruption -- whose gigantic cloud of ash grounded transatlantic flights for more than a week -- a response to gay rights in Europe and Iceland's tolerance of "neo-paganism." Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said God was angry over health-care legislation. San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, said God was unleashing his wrath on Britain for deciding that Israeli tourism ads featured parts of the disputed Palestinian territories, not Israel.

The eruption is one in a long line of natural events that some religious leaders have attributed to divine judgment. In short, they say that God is using nature to channel his displeasure with human beings -- both the sinners and those who tolerate them -- and that we had better shape up.

It's an impulse that goes back thousands of years and still thrives among people who are generally skeptical of science and who seek divine explanations for natural calamities. Some examples:

-- Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi recently told his Shiite Muslim followers that immodestly dressed and promiscuous women are to blame for earthquakes.

-- In February, Rabbi Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America warned that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could cause natural disasters to strike America. "The practice of homosexuality is a spiritual cause of earthquakes," he said.

-- Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson blamed the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti on a pact between the devil and the Haitians who rebelled against French rule in the 18th century.

-- Robertson and Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans' debauchery and immorality.

-- Malaysian Muslim cleric Azizan Abdul Razak said the 2004 South Asian tsunami was a message from God that "He created the world and can destroy the world," and Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said it was "an expression of God's great ire with the world."

So what is it about nature's fury that attracts theological interpretation? For many religious leaders, scholars say, it's an opportunity to win new believers.

"Natural disasters are disruptive. When there's a disruption, people's worldviews are shaken and need to be repaired," said Steve Friesen, a biblical studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Natural disasters are a prime time to repair people's worldviews. . . . It's a long-running theme in American culture that God works to bring people into changing their worldview," Friesen said.

Who accepts these proclamations and who doesn't often depends on how a believer views God: benevolent, wrathful, active, passive or maybe something less defined, like a cosmic force.

"This stuff attracts people with a strong authoritarian image of God and who believe that He -- it's almost always a 'He' -- does in fact punish people who do not follow his rules," said Wade Clark Roof, professor of American religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Another common thread among people who link disaster to divine judgment is that they tend to consider disasters as confirmation of already-held beliefs.

"They already think God is working in certain ways, and disasters become an example of that," said Friesen, pointing to Hagee as an example. "There's no logical connection [between Britain's ad policy and the volcano], but because he is already convinced that God works to protect Israel, he believes that God made the volcano erupt to punish Britain."

People who make such pronouncements are also claiming special power or authority, experts said. "They are claiming special knowledge of how God works in the world and why he does what he's doing," Friesen said.

Many religious leaders reject the idea that disaster is linked to divine judgment.

"It's faulty theology. People take the personal consequences of sin, which are real, and project them onto natural disaster. That's where things break down," said Joel Hunter, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and a megachurch pastor in suburban Orlando.

"Speculating that disaster happens because sin has reached a certain level puts God in a really bad light," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, president of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. "You start blaming the victims for a process that is a result of something that they had nothing to do with," he said.

Although Lerner flatly rejects linking specific behaviors to specific disasters, he does believe that human actions can cause natural calamities. In short, global warming isn't a God-sent portent of the fires of hell, but rather a very natural reaction to human action.

"God has communicated to us that there is a connection between the physical survival of the planet and whether we follow the command to be good stewards of the planet," Lerner said. "We have to stop exploiting the Earth and start treating it as sacred."

-- Religion News Service

By omar sacirbey | Saturday, May 1, 2010

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