Monday, January 03, 2005

A New Year

It was not a Dickensian year, 2004. Not the best of times, nor the worst of times -- although the biblically proportioned tsunami disaster at year's end makes me hesitate a bit in that observation about the worst of times.
For progressives in the United States, the entire year brought political disasters, but our challenges pale in comparison to those faced by the millions left homeless by this "act of God."
Perhaps we should blame God for all of last year, afterall, it was "his" followers (and almost all conservative evangelicals would refer to God with a masculine pronoun) who claimed victory when President Bush was returned to the White House in November.
But because I do not believe that God is the author of the suffering in Asia nor the political pain of progressives, I can no more believe that a tsunami was an act of God than I could believe that the outcome of an election was an act of God -- even if the side I favor should win and others should suffer the sting of defeat!
There were lots of "theological" responses to the tsunami including, not surprisingly, various suggestions that this act of God was a warning or a test. "This is an act of God that is beyond our understanding," many other voices claimed. Such theology crosses faith lines. For example, a Muslim leader's response in the Guardian echoed almost precisely one I read from a Christian pastor quoted over the weekend in the Washington Post.
Likewise, there were plenty of "theological" responses to the election, including many conservative evangelicals claiming credit for Bush's victory and suggesting, by implication, that God's side had triumphed. Jerry Falwell called the election the greatest victory in the history of conservative Christianity, and he's always been pretty clear that there is really no other kind of Christianity deserving of the name.
Now I am not comparing the disaster of the tsunami with the November elections here. Please. What's at stake is the nature of God as suggested by some people trying to explain complex events after the fact.
Whether its a political outcome or a natural disaster, the use of God as explanation of complex events relies on the same understanding of God as divine puppet master. Such understanding surely has roots in Jewish and Christian scripture. Open to almost any text and you will find passages like God saying to Moses, "Your time to die is near" (Deut. 31:14), or Jesus praying, "not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42) just prior to his arrest.
Clearly, most of the writers of scripture understood God as active in the movements of everyday life and in the workings of nature ("You rule the raging of the sea," the psalmist says in Psalm 89.) Just as clearly, the writers understood that God's ways are often unfathomable.
But I cannot see how a god who would use the random deaths of 150,000 people as a test is a god worthy or worship -- awesomely powerful, yes, but not worthy of praise and worship.
I prefer God in weakness, which is probably why I call myself a Christian. Where was God in the midst of the storming sea? Present with those who struggled and parished, and with those who mourn, and with those who respond to mourning with attempts to comfort.
Where was God in the midst of the election? Moving among people of faith calling us all to hold leaders of all parties accountable to a vision of justice, compassion and shalom.
Such a God, present in weakness and suffering, is not a grand ghost in the machine or stage-manager of history, but rather the spirit of love animating life where all love and hope seem lost. That's not much to go on, but perhaps it's enough for times like these, and perhaps it's a starting place for the theological work required of progressive faith in the worst of times.