The Common Good

Acts of God or Sins of Humanity?

Sojomail - September 8, 2005


09.08.2005 www.sojo.net
Quote of the Week : Homeland security
Religion and Politics : Acts of God or sins of humanity?
Building a Movement : Help us make poverty history at the World Summit
By the Numbers : Poverty is a national crisis
Politically Connect : Supreme discontentment
Soul Works : Merton on faith, questioning, and struggle
Culture Watch : William Stringfellow: A Christian vocation
Boomerang : Readers write
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QUOTE OF THE WEEK ^top

"If we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?"

- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Source: CNN



RELIGION AND POLITICS ^top

Acts of God or sins of humanity?
by Wes Granberg-Michaelson

From a vacation cottage Karin and I watched on TV as the desolation unfolded in New Orleans and the Gulf coast. Through that agonizing week we sat helpless with millions, while the world's most technologically powerful nation could not provide food, water, and rescue to fellow citizens whose desperate faces filled our screen and haunted our consciences.

Commentators described Hurricane Katrina as a "natural disaster," or at times as an "act of God," like language used in some insurance policies describing events beyond human control. It means no one is liable. Except, of course, God. And that's what troubles me. How can a God of love, Creator of all that is, be responsible for such terrible, destructive disasters?

But as I listened, reflected, and prayed during that week, another question emerged. Just how "natural" was this disaster? Consider this, for instance. When Katrina left the Florida coast, it was classified as a "tropical storm" - not even a hurricane. It picked up tremendous power as it passed through the Gulf of Mexico, in part, experts think, because the waters of the Gulf were two degrees warmer than normal. So by the time it reached New Orleans, it was a category four hurricane.

Years before becoming general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, I led a group studying global warming and the responsibility of the churches for preserving the environment when I served as director of Church and Society for the World Council of Churches. Even then (1990), a clear global scientific consensus warned that global warming due to human causes - especially the accelerated use of fossil fuels - was causing disruptive climate changes. And I clearly remember listening to scientists say that one effect could be that storms such as hurricanes would increase in their intensity and destructive effects because of warmer waters and changing sea levels. So a part of Katrina's fury was not completely "natural."

And there's more. New Orleans was built between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, with much of the city below sea level. Its vulnerability to flooding from hurricanes was partly protected by the wetlands between the city and the Gulf. These act like a "speed bump," absorbing and lowering some of a hurricane's force. But they've been disappearing, making way for shopping malls, condos, and roads, so 25 square miles are lost each year - an area the size of Manhattan. And the city has kept moving closer to the Gulf.

Moreover, the levees and dams constructed to protect the city and "control" the Mississippi deprive the wetlands from the sediments and nutrients that naturally would replenish its life. There's a lot "unnatural" about this "act of God."

And then, consider the victims. Those who have suffered the most are the poorest, and most of them are black. Twenty-seven percent of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line, and many of those simply had no cars, or no money, and no way to leave. That also isn't "natural." The poverty rate, and the gap between rich and poor, continues to increase in this nation, and that is a national disgrace. More to our point, that's a sin, condemned by literally hundreds of verses of scripture. Those most vulnerable to Katrina have been kept on society's margins by persistent economic injustice and racism.

I celebrate the tides of compassion flowing in the wake of Katrina. Organizations such as Church World Service and the Salvation Army bear the compassion of Christ to the desolate, homeless, and hopeless. And I still don't fully understand why, in the providence of a loving and all-powerful God of creation, things like hurricanes and earthquakes happen.

But I do know this. When I see the devastating effects of Katrina, I don't simply regard these as an inexplicable "act of God." I also focus on the sins of humanity. We've disobeyed God's clear biblical instructions to preserve the integrity of God's good creation, and to overcome the scourge of poverty. In the aftermath of Katrina, we desperately need not only compassion, but also repentance.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Reprinted from the Church Herald, October 2005. (c) 2005 by the Church Herald, Inc. Used with permission. Another version of this article will appear in the print version of the October 2005 Church Herald and on the Church Herald Web site herald.rca.org.


If you wish to make a contribution to help with disaster relief, contact one of the agencies recommended by the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster or the relief organization of your choice.

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BUILDING A MOVEMENT ^top

Help us make poverty history at the World Summit
by Adam Taylor

the 30,000 CAMPAIGNOn Wednesday, Sept. 14, a wide array of religious leaders (including Archbishop Desmond Tutu) will be gathering at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza near the United Nations to launch three days of prayer, fasting, and political witness around the crisis of global poverty. Due to both national and international pressure, Ambassador John Bolton and the Bush administration agreed this week to reverse their efforts to strike any reference to the poverty-reducing Millennium Development Goals.

Hurricane Katrina provides a stark and tragic reminder that poverty creates vulnerability in people both in the U.S. and around the world. Through the World Summit we have an opportunity to shine a spotlight on extreme poverty around the world - particularly the 30,000 children who die a preventable death due to disease and malnutrition. By joining in the 30,000 Campaign we can use our prayers, our daily sacrifice, and our voice to advocate with our brothers and sisters across the world living in extreme poverty. We need your help to send a clear and decisive message to our government and world leaders that the time is now to use our power and resources to fight extreme poverty.

Action 1: Tell President Bush you will pray and fast during the World Summit! Already thousands of Sojourners supporters have agreed to fast and pray during the Summit. This week represents our last chance to invite our friends, coworkers, and congregants to declare to President Bush our intention to fast and pray for bold U.S. leadership. So far, nearly 7,000 people have joined us. Click here to sign the pledge. A fast can be as simple as sacrificing one meal during the course of the Summit (click here to learn more about ways you can fast).

+ Click here to sign the pledge

Action 2: Educate your congregation! This week is the final Sunday before the World Summit to educate your faith community about global poverty and the opportunities we have as people of faith to speak truth to power.

+ Click here for an anti-poverty worship resource kit to include in your upcoming worship services

+ Click here for a children's letter-writing kit for religious education classes, Sunday Schools, and parents

Action 3: Distribute the flyer! Download a "Three Days of Prayer and Fasting" flyer that describes events that Sojourners, Bread for the World, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation and others are planning during the World Summit from September 14-16. Print it out and distribute it this week and next week in your church or faith community. A large turnout at these events will demonstrate our political will to overcome poverty, and will send a message to the Bush administration that we will not tolerate sweeping poverty under the rug.

+ Click here to download the flyer


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BY THE NUMBERS ^top

Poverty is a national crisis

As Hurricane Katrina has dramatically exposed the urban poverty in southern cities, it is important to remember that poverty is a national problem, and a growing one.

37 million - total number of people living in poverty in the U.S.
13 million - number of children living in poverty
1.1 million - number of people who fell below the poverty threshold between 2003 and 2004
4 - number of consecutive years in which the poverty rate has risen in America

Source: The U.S. Census Bureau


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POLITICALLY CONNECT ^top

Supreme discontentment
by Mark Wexler

As the political haggling and maneuvering over Supreme Court appointments continues after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it will be increasingly important to take a page from O'Connor's playbook. During her 24 years on the nation's highest court, her reasoning and findings evolved to shape the look of today's court. She accomplished this by finding the ever-so-unpopular middle ground and standing against extremes. Simply put, O'Connor shielded the court - and our country - from unyielding ideologies.

To this end, it is essential that the majority of people in the United States - those who tend to remain silent - stand and speak against the outliers, those who bellow loudly for the few. The reopening of O'Connor's seat means that those on the left and right are willing and ready to rattle the sabers of discontent. On the day Justice O'Connor announced her retirement, I received an e-mail message showing just how toxic the political and social climate is. Christian Response, a wing of RightMarch.com, sent the message with a subject line reading, "The Supreme Court Fight is ON!"

As confirmation hearings begin next week for John Roberts, and the search for a new nominee for O'Connor's seat continues, it is imperative that the voice of reason wins out during this contentious time. The furthest ends of the political spectrum are mobilized, and in light of the climate in which we find ourselves, I hope that the country can handle the strife that might follow. These may prove to be very hard times.

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SOUL WORKS ^top

"We too often forget that faith is a matter of questioning and struggle before it becomes one of certitude and peace. You have to doubt and reject everything else in order to believe firmly in Christ, and after you have begun to believe, your faith itself must be tested and purified. Christianity is not merely a set of forgone conclusions. Faith tends to be defeated by the burning presence of God in mystery, and seeks refuge from him, flying to comfortable social forms and safe convictions in which purification is no longer an inner battle but a matter of outward gesture."

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CULTURE WATCH ^top

William Stringfellow: A Christian vocation
by Scott Kennedy

My People is the Enemy (Wipf & Stock, republication 2005)
A Second Birthday (Wipf & Stock, republication 2005)
A Simplicity of Faith (Wipf & Stock, republication 2005)

These three books, newly republished, constitute what William Stringfellow, personal mentor to Jim Wallis and the wider Sojourners community, understood to be an "autobiographical trilogy." The three slim volumes provide an exceptional opportunity to observe Stringfellow "doing theology." That, he would say, was not his work or his career, but his vocation. While Stringfellow was neither conventionally trained nor certified, he was without a doubt called in the Word of God to be a theologian. Indeed, Stringfellow considered theological reflection on one's life and times essential to Christian vocation itself. He recalled Karl Barth's remark about "a Christian being a person who has the Bible in one hand and the day's newspaper in the other, which is to say one simultaneously attentive to the Word and the world" (Second Birthday). In the preface to A Simplicity of Faith, he aptly described his theological method to be "biography as theology."

While yet a youth, Stringfellow channeled his considerable energy, intellectual drive, and ambition into leadership positions in various student Christian organizations and international ecumenical movements. He wrote, "at the time of life when (I suppose) I should have been obsessed with football, sex, or pop music, as my peers seemed to be, I was very bothered about the identity of Jesus - preoccupied by issues of who he was and who he is...." (Simplicity). As a young man, Stringfellow chose against entering the Episcopal priesthood. Despite much encouragement (even pressure) in that direction from family and a clergy mentor, he was "beginning to comprehend that the Gospel was, somehow, not about religion, but reached beyond religion" (A Second Birthday).

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BOOMERANG ^top

Readers write

Bob Wright writes from Lakeland, Alberta, Canada:

Yes, of course we have to devote ourselves to "prayer and action for hurricane victims." And you are correct in pointing out that in all disasters - whether they are labeled "natural" or "human" - it is those at the bottom of the economic scale, the poor, who suffer most and for whom the continuing results are most long-term if not life-lasting [SojoMail 8/31/2005].

It is also important to keep in mind the ongoing "hurricane victims" in Iraq, where the disastrous intrusion of the Bush administration into the already horrendous life of the people of that country has had multiple negative effects - which, again, will persist indefinitely into the future.

It is also important to recognize that the line between natural and human disasters is no longer as clear as it once was. Many of those disasters labeled "natural" are in fact very often the result of human actions that environmentalists have been cautioning against for decades.

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Rev. Ron McCreary writes from Tallahassee, Florida:

The SojoMail that arrived in my inbox yesterday carried an article by Irene Erin Kindy of Christian Peacemaker Teams titled "Do not be surprised by your suffering" [SojoMail 8/31/2005]. The upshot of the article was that following our Lord can be a costly business.

Theologically and practically, the article was dead on. By the time we all got it, however, pictures of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, the possibility of thousands of deaths, and the helplessness of the responders were deeply in our minds. One hopes that we don't make a wrong (theo)logical turn and believe that what those folks have suffered and continue to suffer was a part of some cosmic scheme of God's, that in this sense the victims shouldn't be surprised at their suffering and should simply deal with their pain. The circumstances are very different from those faced by the Christian Peacemaker Teams and others out working for our Lord. God doesn't send hurricanes. There are such things as accidents of history. Katrina was one of those. The ongoing war in Iraq and the referenced suffering in missional situations is not.

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Marquita Bell writes from San Diego, California:

I have watched the heart-wrenching situation in New Orleans grow from bad to horrid over the last few days, and my heart and prayers go out to the victims and their families. My anger goes out toward our government "leaders" who have obviously underestimated the situation and not taken it seriously enough because most of these people are poor and black who already depend on government aid to survive. I think that it is high treason that U.S. citizens are living under inhumane conditions right here on U.S. soil. And on top of that the government is being prideful by not immediately accepting the international aid that is being offered. I am fed up and frustrated that once again America has proven that the poor do not deserve to receive equal treatment. Had this happened to a more affluent area, let's face it, the situation would never be allowed to get this bad.

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Mark Shelley writes from Midland, Michigan:

I've been disturbed by some of the opinions demonizing Hugo Chavez by portraying the Venezuelan president as nothing but a ruthless dictator and a unique threat to the world [Boomerang 8/31/2005]. Comparisons to Hitler are a stretch, to say the least. Hitler was not democratically elected into power, as many seem to believe. He ran against Hindenburg twice in 1932 and was decisively beaten both times. His Nazi party in alliance with Nationalists pressured the president to name him as chancellor - he never won a national election of any kind.

People who are upset about Chavez's opinions on the U.S. should keep in mind that from the point of view of many in Latin America, the U.S. has made a continuous practice of intervening, engineering coups, and supporting dictatorships in countries throughout the hemisphere. Just because we choose to forget about our role in supporting governments such as Guatamala's during the '70s and '80s doesn't mean that the rest of the hemisphere does. Those who are upset about Chavez being friendly with Cuba need to remember some of the tyrants our nation has been friendly with: Suharto, Pinochet - not to mention the present day [Uzbek president] Islam Karimov, whose human rights record makes Castro look tame in comparison. Considering the horrors that have gone on in South and Central America over the last 50 years I find all of the outrage over Hugo Chavez a little out of place. I look at it like this: the majority of the Venezuelan people voted to move in a more socialist direction. So what? Where did it become our right to tell them that they're wrong and not a real democracy simply because we don't agree with their choices?

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Ensign Micah Holden, Nurse Corps, writes from Portsmouth, Virginia:

Sojourners has been a proactive balance in helping to maintain my lifeview. I am a pediatric nurse for the United States Navy. I have served in the military for one year, and I still mentally struggle with the fact that I am supporting an organization that goes to war and murders people. (This is something I don't support and highly doubt Jesus would either. Indeed, who would Jesus assassinate?). My moral convictions, however, are augmented by the fact that I work in the medical profession and help heal individuals, as opposed to directly shooting people. Additionally, almost everyone supports the military to some degree - through tax dollars, for instance.

I am not entirely opposed to the military because I see that it can bring about positive changes in the world. For instance, it is beneficial in teaching discipline to young enlistees who might otherwise choose to do illegal drugs or other things of that harmful nature. Good can also be accomplished through military humanitarian and relief missions (I currently have friends deployed to the Gulf Coast area, where they are helping victims of Hurricane Katrina). While I do have a love/hate relationship with the Navy, I am committed to helping and serving others where I am stationed. Thank you, Sojourners, for keeping me on my toes by providing thought-provoking articles dealing with war, peace, the military, and other complex issues.

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Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views that do not necessarily represent those of Sojourners. Want to make your voice heard? Include your name, hometown, and state/province/country in a concise e-mail to: boomerang@sojo.net. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.



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