In the more conservative regions of our country, you don’t have to drive very far down any given highway to come across a patriotic billboard that reads something along the lines of
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14”
or “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. Psalm 33:12.”
Given the almost universal western Christian disposition of the first European immigrants to North America, the subsequent Deistic Enlightenment atmosphere that pervaded the United States’ foundations and the historical standard of religious nationalism on the continent, it is little wonder that American exceptionalistic manifest destiny type ideas about God’s geopolitical favor developed.
Now, the theological paradigm presented in the Hebrew scriptures concerning God’s relationship with Israel is hardly ambiguous for the most part: if Israelites behave according to Law, God preserves and prospers them but if they do not keep their end of the deal, God brings harsh judgment on the entire nation in various forms (such as exile, destruction of the temple, death, plagues, enemy military victories, etc.) The ancient Jews interpreted these destructive events in the same manner they interpreted triumphant events like the Exodus, as perceivably God-caused. The prophets argue that God is behind the conquest and subjugation of Israel because of Israel’s sin. For these ancient holy men, if God is not monistically or unilaterally the cause of every event, then God must not be sovereign.
Many modern religious Americans still cling to this hermeneutical school, as demonstrated clearly by highway billboards and successful far right-wing politicians. However, events such as the 20th century Nazi holocaust highly problematize these theo-political notions. Jewish theologians like Peter Ochs have chosen to refer to what we often call “the Holocaust” as the Shoah, a medieval Jewish European term simply meaning “destruction,” rather than “Holocaust”(as holocaust implies that the genocide of six million Jews was a meaningful sacrifice God required, which sounds more Nazi than Jewish.) These two terms reflect profound theological perspectives and beg the question, did God use the Nazi regime to exterminate millions of European Jews or was God a fellow-sufferer protesting these actions? This dialectical tension of God’s relative action and inaction is seen throughout the Tanak, especially in books like Job and the prophets Habakkuk and Micah.
While first acknowledging human inadequacy and the dense mystery surrounding God’s general and/or specific administrative principles in attempting to answer such questions, I suggest that bad things happen to good people not as a consequence of God’s judgmental punitive activity or even because God wields suffering as a sanctification tool but rather because God created a cause and effect universe where both good and horrific events are possible. All of this to say, the supersessionistic belief that America is analogous to, or has even replaced, Israel is aided by the poor, uncritically egocentric interpretations of the Bible primarily concerned with the question, what is God trying to tell me in this verse or passage? While I do affirm that God actively communicates to individuals through scripture, this approach should not be the only, or even primary, hermeneutic lens by which we read sacred texts.
However, we might also explore the notion of judgement coming through world events. Catastrophic events sometimes serve as a means of judgement. Certainly, this is a biblical perspective but it is a very dangerous one (and please note two things: “sometimes” is key and I did not attach the word “God” to the sentence). God’s relationship to the universe (or multiverse, if you really want to get complicated) has been hotly debated for a very long time. Thus, I am slow and truly terrified to attach “God” to anything like genocide, cancer or even mosquito bites. I will further explore God’s relative involvement in catastrophes in an upcoming post on Job but for now, let’s assume three oversimplified possibilities: either God a) as prime mover, is the ultimate causation principle; b) permits all realized possibilities out of respect for and commitment to the radical freedom of Creation; or c) does not possess the power or ability to effect universal change because of either ontological vulnerability or self-limiting kenosis.
As a test case, let us observe the events of 9/11 (and hope it still isn’t too soon.) Growing up in an unfortunately hyper-fundamentalist tradition, I remember preachers calling out that 9/11 was God’s judgement on homosexuals within days of the occurrence. Let me be clear: this is absolute bullshit. The allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah is poorly informed at best and no Bible scholar worth his/her salt will tell you that the impetus of their destruction had much at all to do with homosexuality. Rather, I would suggest the possibility that 9/11 to occurred because of the United States’ treatment of Muslims in general, and more particularly, the unethical American involvement in the affairs of the Middle East over the few several decades, in which power, oil, and money were our primary motivations. “Radical” Middle-Easterners are not reactionary enemies of the U.S. because the U.S. is righteous or chosen, but because North Americans have created enemies by means of greedy and overtly ethnocentric intervention in Middle-Eastern affairs. Now, of course, flying airplanes into the WTC towers full of people is unjustifiable just like the oppression of Israel by the Assyrians is unjustifiable. Clearly, not okay. This is another side of the coin: sometimes “bad things happen to good people” and also, sometimes people reap what they sow. How might God be involved in this?
Similar to the imperative issued in the third article of the Decalogue, in which God commands Israel to not misuse God’s name, Christians must learn to become more cautious in declaring things to be “God’s will,” because surely any assertion of this label is highly speculative and often dangerously risks God’s characteristic goodness in the midst of ghastly events such as the Shoah, destruction of the Temple or even 9/11. In conclusion, though Israelite prophets interpreted all horrific tragedies as coming directly from the hand of God, we need not unearth, adopt and apply this primitive trend wholesale. We must recognize that God has not chosen the United States of America over other nations (lol) and that religious nationalism sacrifices both democratic fidelity and religious liberty; it yields only rotten, half-grown fruit.