A couple of weeks ago, my family was seated around the kitchen table, looking at the newspaper.
“Can you believe the story about the murder hornets?” my husband asked. He can never read the paper without making it into a conversation starter.
“Oh no,” my daughter said. “First the plague, then murder hornets. What’s next, locusts?”
“Oh, we’ve already got those too,” I piped up, having read the story about Africa’s problems with locusts earlier in the month.
“Double oh no,” my daughter said. “Next thing you know, we’ll be hearing from the crazies that all this is a punishment from God.”
We laughed at the time, but the idea worried me. And recently, I heard from a friend that a former classmate did in fact believe that Covid19 was God punishing us for allowing abortion. Checking online, I see that more than a few pastors at a variety of churches across the country are proclaiming a similar perspective, arguing that the virus is a result of sin. And a recent poll, reported in an article by Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic, shows that “some 44 percent of Americans say the pandemic is a ‘wake-up call’ from God and ‘signs of coming judgment.'”
I suppose this had to happen. Whenever something happens to upset our world, large or small, it is human nature to wonder why. Why did AIDS arise? How about the 9-11 attacks? Ebola? People of faith can’t help but look for reasons through the lens of faith. We want to find meaning. We long to ease our pains, literal, figurative and spiritual, by finding some logical causation. And we often don’t want to have to admit to personal responsibility for whatever that has happened. If we can’t blame it on a person or specific group of people, it’s only logical to pin it on God. And it doesn’t take more than a cursory acquaintance with the Bible to blame God. Better yet, let’s say God did it to punish someone else. That really leaves us free and clear.
But what does such a statement like “the virus is a punishment for someone’s sin” say about the God we believe in? If that is true, then the God we believe in is a vengeful sort of deity. God is a creator who has absolute power and authority, and God has a strict set of rules that must be obeyed at all times. God might even be seen as a bit masochistic, desiring “an eye for an eye,” serious pain and death for serious inflictions, and, especially in this pandemic, God’s judgment does not make allowances for the innocents among us who, through no fault of their own, become collateral damage.
This is not the God I know.
Of course, some argue, it’s certainly how God has acted in the past. Just look at how God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden when they disobeyed God’s rule to not eat from the tree. How God punished Pharaoh. How God afflicted the Israelites when they worshipped the golden calf. How God even drove them out of the Promised Land and into exile when they disobeyed. And God even forced Jesus to die for our sins. Can we expect anything different when we disobey God?
Really? I reply. Is that so? I could point out that we are cherry picking events from the scriptures, ones that do not represent all the stories told there. And many are just that, stories. They are stories told to explore who God was and what it meant to be one of God’s people. And they are clearly filtered through long ago cultural awareness and lack of scientific understanding of how this world that God created worked. I could even point out that there are other ways to understand these stories (and I will say more about that soon), but maybe it’s easier to point to Biblical accounts that reject such a view such as when God rebukes Job’s friends for their opinion that Job’s sufferings were a punishment for his sins (Job 42:7) or when Jesus tells his disciples that a man’s blindness was not due to sin (John 9:1-3).
Still, I fear that some folks, who are scared and looking for what might be the easiest way out of that fear, will simply ignore me. And I can only repeat–this is not the God I know.
The God I know is a God of mercy. The God I know is a God of love. God created this world and God created us out of love, and as the scriptures say, God saw that it was good. And time and time again, when God’s people faltered, when they were cruel to one another, when they forgot how to live in community as God’s people, God had mercy on them, because God loved them. Abraham, our father in faith, didn’t always follow the Lord’s ways, and yet God was merciful and gave him and Sarah a son long after the possibility of having children had passed. God forgave the Israelites when they worshiped a golden calf, when they grumbled about the lack of food and the length of the journey to the Promised Land, and gave them food, drink, and guides for their journey. Even in exile, God sustained God’s people and ultimately brought them back to Israel. They didn’t deserve it, they hadn’t done anything to earn it. God simply loved them, forgave them and restored them.
The God I know is a God who respects the world God has created, and that includes human beings. We say that God has created us in God’s image but with free will. Yet too often we ignore the idea of free will and all it entails. We are not simply robots living out a predetermined storyline. We are free to make choices–and yes, even to sin–and because the natural world works in certain ways, there are sometimes consequences, even dire consequences.
But God didn’t dream them up as a suitable punishment for our shortcomings. There are floods, swarms of insects, earthquakes, mudslides, and yes, even viruses because we have not always taken care of our environment. We have allowed forests to be demolished, so when the rains came there were no buffers to prevent the waters from wreaking havoc. We have had to deal with unusual insect predators because areas that once were deserts, and inhospitable to things like locusts, are now drenched by rains caused by climate change, or because our increasing dependence on international commerce results in Asian hornets accidentally hitchhiking across oceans in shipping containers. It wasn’t God who caused these things to happen. We did.
But shouldn’t God have prevented these things if God really loved us? And what about the fact that Jesus died for our sins to redeem us? If that happened, how can we say that God wouldn’t punish us for our more recent sins?
And this is where I says that it is important to question what we know or think we know. If Jesus died for our sins–and the Bible and our tradition tells us that is true–does that necessarily mean that God caused Jesus’ death? That God even demanded his death, a holy quid pro quo? Is it possible that there is choice and free will involved in Jesus’ story? Is it possible that the people of his time chose to kill him not because God desired the death of his son but because they did, because they were close-minded, power hungry, frightened, or rebellious? Is it possible that Jesus roused their self-righteous anger by upsetting their very image of God (a deity who desired sacrifice, even the death of one who might not share their views)? Is it possible that Jesus didn’t redeem us because he had to die but because he accepted death, accepted what it meant to be fully human and subject to the natural consequences of human frailty?
As someone once said to me, “Jesus didn’t have to die to redeem us. Jesus could have redeemed us and simply left his human existence as an old man dying in his sleep. What redeemed us was his coming and taking on human form. But the people of his time could not live with Jesus who spoke the truth about what God was like and what it meant to live as a human being, so they killed him. They couldn’t see any other choice–not because God willed it to be so but because they lacked the imagination and compassion to see God and the world in a different way.”
Okay, so this was not exactly what I heard the first time someone said something like that to me. And I didn’t believe it the first time, or the second time, or perhaps even for many times after this. But eventually, as I started to read more widely in the Bible, and to question my own perceptions of God, it began to make a little sense. Because the God I came to know and see active in this world is a God of love and mercy, not a vengeful father bent on punishment. And we, created beings with free will to screw up and make poor decisions, can really make a mess of what should be running smoothly, with plenty of room and plenty of food for all.
So what do you think? Who is your God? Would the God you know exact punishment through locusts, murder hornets and a particularly devastating virus?
This is not the God I know.