Harvey: How Christians Contextualize Disaster

hurricane-harvey-rescue-boats-ap-jt-170827_16x9_992Christianity is a disaster. And that fact is never more apparent than when disaster strikes. If you want to see Christians dance, just ask them about the actions, or inactions of god in the face of a devastating storm. It all comes off the rails, and reveals itself as the crazy train it is.

But first…

For what it is worth, my thoughts and best wishes go out to the victims of hurricane Harvey. They were indeed victims, both the ones who survived and the ones who didn’t. They were all innocent of crimes worthy of death and devastation by storm. This serves up justice to no one.

My thoughts and best wishes are only meaningful in letting you know that I consider myself a part of the human family. And when you suffer in such an extreme way, I also feel your pain. We all need to do more than hold the victims in our thoughts.

They need food, dry clothes, safe shelter, and a fresh start. So I want you to know that I do not mistake my thoughts and best wishes for actually providing something useful.

And now, back to the regularly scheduled polemic:

Thoughts and Prayers

I don’t remember if it was 911 or some other event that brought this issue to the forefront of my mind. I just remember the parade of important people who couldn’t wait to get in front of a camera and talk about how all those suffering from the tragedy were in the thoughts and prayers for whomever it was seeking attention at the time.

It was utterly nauseating.

First, the event was a world-changing event. Of corse it was in their thoughts. It was in all our thoughts. There was no way for that not the be the case. Adding prayers seemed gratuitous. Considering that most Americans self-identified as churchgoing, religious Christians, there was not a church in the country not featuring the tragedy in all of their prayers.

To say that a thing is in one’s thoughts and prayers seemed like just another way of saying, “I’m religious. I’m a part of the club. Look at me!” It is ultimately a self-serving thing to say. Consider all that is not messaged in that pronouncement:

It does not suggest that much needed emergency food, shelter, clothing, and other personal items will be on offer. It does not suggest that a large infusion of cash is on the way. It does not mean that you are about to get invited to stay with some well-to-do believer in a part of the country unaffected by the disaster. This is what you being kept in their prayers s doesn’t mean.

So it has zero benefit for the victim, while making the person saying feel pious. When you say that, you are announcing that you are doing something useful, without actually doing anything useful.

It also smacks of a certain arrogance. The whole world of religious people, not just Christians, are praying over the same people. But somehow, the fact that you will be praying for them will somehow make the difference.

Thank goodness you are on the case. I’m cold, wet, and all my belongings are ruined. But I have finally been rescued now that the good lord has sent me a prayer warrior such as yourself to get this handled. Thoughts and prayers should never be used as a substitute for something useful. All too often, they are used in just that way.

The Wind and the Waves Will Obey Thy Will

Does anyone remember that scene in the gospels where the storm was overtaking the ship. And the disciples were afraid for their lives. Jesus was sleeping peacefully because after all, it was just a deadly storm at sea.

To show his mastery over the elements, he calms the storm. It is a heartwarming story until you take a second look at what it seems to be saying. There are no storms that god cannot handle. If we surveyed the boasts of god in the Old Testament, he also causes the storms.

Stay with me, it gets a little hard to keep up with.

Hurricanes are the exact and perfect repudiation of that story, and every other bible story that suggests that god cares about storms, or is able to do anything about them. Before Harvey was as much as a tropical storm, god saw it coming, and had already noted the death tole that would follow.

No doubt, humans were able to track this storm long before it hit land. Prayers were already wafting beyond the storm clouds and into the ether. God was processing the prayers for deliverance before the rain began to fall.

God had already decided that he wanted that storm to hit. And he already decided who would live and who would die. This is not one unanswered prayer. It is hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

So which is it? Did god cause the hurricane or not? If he allowed it, who or what caused it? Nature, you say? I thought Jesus could stop natural storms. He did for his disciples. Were there no worthy disciples in Huston? Did the devil cause the storm? Is this the work of leviathan? I thought god was supposed to be mightier.

Exactly who’s will was the wind and the waves obeying?

The Affectionate, Fervent Prayers of the Righteous

If this subheading was a Jeopardy question, the answer would be, “What is, availeth much?” That Daily Double under the category, “Useless sayings and broken promises of the Bible” would have made you a rich person.

We have already considered the fact that the prayers of the righteous did no apparent good. But I think the situation is worse. What is it that the person praying is hoping to get now that the damage is done? Moreover, who exactly are they praying to at this point?

Remember, the god of the Old Testament boasts that he is the one who brings the storm. Why would you pray to that guy to stop it? The god of the New Testament is a bit more useless and empathizes with your suffering. But he has already proven himself incapable of stopping the storm.

He could not or would not stop the deaths of the innocent, the destruction of lives and livelihoods of survivors, or the financial devastation that is to come to that region. Why the heck would you want to pray to the one who did this to you, or who saw fit to allow it, or who tried his best but couldn’t help? How exactly do you spin that story?

If one person survives, you sing the praises of a god who oversaw the killing of the rest? Really? That’s your good news? If the others are now in a better place, then why let one survive and not get to that better place? Spin on…

And what is it that we are praying for. The people who saw the storm coming prayed that it would be dissipated. It wasn’t. The people who saw that it would not be dissipated prayed that it wouldn’t be deadly. It was. The people who saw that it would be deadly prayed that it wouldn’t be costly or destructive to property. It was.

Now, people are praying that the survivors be comforted. There are no more prayers for the dead. So how are those prayers for comfort going? How about the prayers that their lives be rebuilt? That is going at the pace of what one should expect if there was no god, and only other humans provide comfort and the tools to rebuild.

So tell me again. What are we praying for? How does any prayer you offer in the face of this storm, and every other storm, not make you feel stupid, and maybe a little sick in the pit of your stomach?

It is in times like these when it is obvious that there is no god in control of anything. And we create our god story dynamically based on the situation, and what cognitive dissonance will allow. Perhaps there was a time when there was a god whose will was obeyed by the wind and the waves. But it should be clear to us now that the god of the storm is dead. And if he is not, he should be.

David Johnson


2 thoughts on “Harvey: How Christians Contextualize Disaster

  1. Hi David,
    I happened upon this post when I had a look around your blog.

    I would beg to differ with you when you say that Christians offer zero practical benefits for the victims of disasters.

    Here’s one quote from the content of this short article which addresses who does what when it comes to disaster relief: “According to the CEO of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an umbrella group, “About 80% of all recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based.”



    • I agree that Christians do offer practical aid in emergencies. But that aid is not due to anything supernatural. It is the same aid anyone can and does offer. You fail to consider that many of those contributing to faith-based organizations are non-believers. The Red Cross might have its origins in faith. But it is practically the de facto charity in an emergency. The money comes from everyone, everywhere. Faith is not a factor.

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