Pat Robertson's Problem
Pat Robertson, the televangelist with a propensity for putting his foot in his mouth, did it again recently in his publicly expressed discernment of the cause of the stroke suffered by Israel's leader Ariel Sharon. Mr. Robertson, who gives new meaning to the phrase about fools and angels, blamed Mr. Sharon's willingness to give up Gaza to the Palestinians as the reason for God's thunderbolt to his brain.
I predict that at some later date the creator of the 700 Club will do it again, shoot from the lip and be greeted with catcalls from the press and embarrassment by his fellow Evangelicals.
And if Pat doesn't fulfill my prophecy, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and any number of other souls looking for simplistic explanations for bad things will be quoted in the media.
No, it's not biblical literalism that's to blame. If anything, Mr. Robertson is not biblical enough, offering a view of tragedy far more truncated than the many-splendored thing that is the Scriptural treatment of disaster.
Pat's problem is his Deuteronomic reading of events, to the exclusion of other biblical viewpoints. Deuteronomy insists that God (Yahweh) requires total obedience from his people, those to whom has been given the mission of revealing his sovereignty to the world. Disobedience leads to curse and suffering. Obedience leads to blessing and prosperity.
Of course, I have terribly oversimplified the theology of Deuteronomy. It was a book for a tough time, when Israel was assailed on every front by more powerful enemies with their own deities claiming total obedience. Those of you who want a more detailed explanation of the Deuteronomic worldview can do your own googling. I provide you here with just one among a score of sources I found: http://www.kolel.org/pages/5761/ki_tavo.html, especially the paragraphs on Pshat and Drash.
It is appealing in its simplicity. Once long ago in another century I went to the home of parishioners whose house came close to burning down because a toddler grandson playing with matches had set drapes on fire. Grandma searched for the reason punishment was being visited on her household. She thought she may not have been religious enough, had gone to too many movies, and had tippled too many cocktails. I thought, but had the civility not to say it, that maybe leaving matches and grandchildren unattended was the problem.
Similarly, the anger with God by people visited with sudden tragedy, a death, a disease, a failure, often has behind it the conviction that God's finger of punishment is doing it, and the punishment is undeserved; that God is great but not just. To the victim, at least.
I would encourage Christian Pastor Robertson, and others so inclined, to reread and ponder Luke 13:1-5. It reports Jesus' take on tragedy. He addresses a couple of hot topics of his hour on earth, first, how the king had mingled the blood of those preparing ritual sacrifice in the Temple with the blood of the animals sacrificed... an act, perhaps, of political purging. Second, Jesus refers to the fall of the tower of Siloam killing eighteen people. His hearers, under the impulse of a Deuteronomic reading of events, thought the victims were being punished for their sins. Jesus' response is reminiscent of his defense of the woman caught in adultery. He says in so many words that there is enough sin in the world and in each of us to justify the mingled blood and the falling tower no matter who the victims are, from Mother Teresa to Adolph Hitler.
The Apostle Paul expands on Jesus' suggestion in Romans 3, observing that "there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." No distinction, please note. Everyone of us, however holy, however obedient to the will of God, every last one of us, no exceptions, need and need badly the grace of God to go from one day to the next. If your living room drapes burn or don't. If the towers fall or remain standing. If stricken or as healthy as an Olympic athlete.
All things happen to all people. God does not save us from our fate, but God does provide us with grace and faith to make the most of the time we have, whatever the indignity visited on us by circumstance.
One last observation for Pat, more red letter words, from the same fellow whose wisdom on the Tower of Siloam I've just tried to explain, these words too often forgotten by self-righteous souls like me, about specks of dust and large splinters: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" That thought has kept my lips buttoned more often than anyone but my wife knows... and I haven't told her everything.