- Theological Responses to Natural Disasters
Lately it seems as though natural disasters are on the rise. Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, earthquakes in Haiti, China, and Turkey, tsunamis hitting India and Japan, tornados and flooding across the Midwest and the South, the list goes on and on. Each of these natural disasters has caused significant destruction and devastating loss of life. Despite the faulty levees in New Orleans and the poor infrastructure in Haiti, these tragedies raise difficult questions of theodicy. What role does God play in natural disasters? We often associate beauty in nature with God, as it gives us an awe-inspiring sight to connect with the Divine. However, if we attribute nature’s beauty to God, what about nature’s violence? Do we see God’s hand in that as well? If not, then what is God’s role in the natural world? If so, how do we respond theologically to the untold damage that a natural disaster inflicts on families and communities?
In the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a number of theological responses emerged. One of the most widely reported was that of Reverend Pat Robertson. He claimed that Haiti had been cursed because of a pact with the devil made by its slave founders some two centuries ago, which allowed them to overthrow their French rulers and become the world’s first black republic.1 The White House reportedly called his [End Page 70] remarks “stupid” but, theologically speaking, the White House’s response was equally problematic. In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama invoked “our common humanity,” saying that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” Both Obama and Robertson claim that God plays an active role in the world. So how do we explain where God was during these disasters?
Some of the residents of Haiti expressed a sentiment similar to that of President Obama. Bishop Éric Toussaint, standing near his damaged cathedral, said: “Why give thanks to God? Because we are here. What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now.” But not everyone found this earthquake to contain an edifying theological message. “How could He do this to us?” lamented Remi Polevard, who said his five children lay beneath in the rubble of a home near St. Gerard University. “There is no God.”2
Biblical Reponses to Natural Disasters
Assessing where God was, or where God is, in the wake of a horrible natural disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti is nothing new. After each tragic earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami, articles and essays proliferate, offering answers to this question. And answers have been proffered well before media coverage was so sophisticated. Robertson’s comments echo the biblical premise for the stability of the natural world—namely, that the behavior of the earth’s inhabitants affects the weather. This notion is widespread in Torah. We see it first in the story of the flood: “When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark …’” (Genesis 6:12–14; NJPS). God brings the flood, a natural disaster, in response to the people’s sinful ways. We also see a causal link between people’s behavior and natural occurrences at the [End Page 71] end of the flood story, as God brings a rainbow to symbolize the end of the destruction. Clearly, this text understands there to be a direct connection between people’s behavior and the natural world.
Perhaps the most famous example of this connection is made in Deuteronomy 11:13–17, which we recite twice daily as the second paragraph of the Shema. Here the Torah explicitly links the performance of the commandments with the amount of rain that will fall in the appropriate season. If people follow the commandments, God...