* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Natural Disasters and Wickedness: Viewing the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as the Wrath of God

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah suggests some very interesting and disturbing ideas about natural disasters, or really any sort of disaster in life. For the mind that wants to see the universe as ordered under the control of some higher authority, stories like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah help to make sense of events that seem chaotic, with a footnote that cleverly insults certain groups of people. Briefly: God (for whatever reason) mentions to Abraham that he’s going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because the people there are wicked beyond redemption. Abraham pleads with him and says, “You can’t kill innocent people! Spare the cities if there are at least 10 righteous men.” God promises to look into the matter, and swears that he’ll spare the cities if even a handful of people are worth saving. As it turns out, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is the only one worth saving, so God just warns Lot to get out of town with his family. In a striking reflection of Orpheus and Eurydice, Lot’s wife looks back at the city as they are fleeing and is transformed into a pillar of salt. Then, Lot’s two daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, becoming pregnant with children that would found two nations that were enemies of the very Israelites telling the story.

There are a lot of things one could latch onto in a story like this.  To our culture, it may seem odd for a "righteous" man to offer his virgin daughters to a crowd of would-be rapists.  It may also seem like a pretty low blow to make up an incestuous story about a group’s origins just to have another reason to hate or insult them, but human beings haven’t outgrown that tactic yet. There will be plenty of opportunities to explore relationships and how we see other people, though. The lesson of not focusing on or longing for the past seems fairly obvious in the story of Lot’s wife. This may be worth coming back to at a later time. For now, let’s concentrate on the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the cities.

In recent years, there have been some pretty destructive natural disasters. Just since the turn of the 21st century, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis have had devastating effects on cities, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and have disrupted the lives of millions of people. It seems natural to ask, “Why?” Some people even claim to know why these events have occurred, and they capitalize on the emotional and psychological devastation in the wake of destructive events for a personal agenda. Many people who claim to know why natural disasters occur hearken back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Some claim (with varying degrees of subtlety) that the wickedness of people is the reason for the destruction. There have been exhortations to turn from sinfulness, lest we continue to encourage God’s wrath. The natural disasters we see in our lifetime are even likened to warnings of a divine parent’s growing impatience with disobedient children. In other words, we still struggle to understand why these chaotic events take place, and we instinctively turn to our understanding of the world to fit natural disasters into our existing premises. If the premise is flawed, however, any understanding of the world based upon it is going to create more problems than it solves.

First, let’s have a little perspective about natural disasters. Recent events have been devastating, but to any student of history, they are likely not surprising. Throughout recorded history, there have been floods and earthquakes and storms that have wreaked devastation. Looking back across time, there has not really been a remarkable increase in catastrophic events, even though we may hear about things and see footage much more easily than ever before.

Incidentally, this goes for disease as well, although some have suggested that certain diseases exist as divine warnings against immorality. Tuberculosis, measles, small pox, and the bubonic plague claimed more lives than any disease connected with immorality in today’s society. The Spanish Flu claimed over 50,000,000 deaths in just two years between 1918 and 1920. Malaria continues to kill over 750,000 people each year, primarily the poorest people in the poorest African countries. While people may not be willing to equate poverty with immorality, dealing with that poverty and disease has not really become a worldwide concern. So, it obviously would take a lot for a disease to catch our attention enough to incite a widespread change in lifestyle.

But to some, this does not diminish the impression that someone more powerful is punishing humanity, or some sector of the population. This mindset extends to all sorts of unwanted events from car accidents to disease to lightning strikes. If something bad has happened, some people want there to be a reason, and the easiest reason of all is to believe that the person or people did something wrong to bring hardship upon themselves. Sometimes, hardship may certainly be the result of personal decisions, but in the case of natural disasters, this rationale simply cannot apply. Why is there suffering? Why would there not be?

Archaeologists don’t have any clear evidence to shed light on the story itself. Although the story was certainly written after the fact, and the specific names of Sodom and Gomorrah were not recorded in other sources, there could easily have been sites in the region destroyed by earthquakes, volcanic activity, or even a meteor. Whether or not the story is completely factual in the historical details, we can relate to such events, because we still see cities destroyed by earthquakes, floods, mudslides, avalanches, and storms. These things are part of our ecosystem. They are natural events which occur because of natural reasons. Sometimes people get caught in the destruction, but the natural events are not specifically targeting anyone. We don’t always understand why something has happened, but that doesn’t mean a rational and natural explanation doesn’t exist. There is no reason to assume that some person or community is being punished when natural disaster strikes. They are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To suggest otherwise should concern those who believe in an intelligent divine being who causes things to happen in the world. If we are truly able to change our behavior and thus avert further catastrophe, this is a kind of magic. Our actions should not be able to alter the decisions of an omniscient and omnipotent entity, since that would actually mean that the external divine being is at the mercy of believers instead of the other way around. It also ignores the fact that there are people who live wholesome lives, who even believe the things they are “supposed” to believe, who are struck down by natural disasters or disease.

Alternatively, it makes just as little sense to claim that people are simply wicked at the core of their being, and thus are deserving of whatever punishment a divine being may choose to dish out. Aside from being a very hopeless perspective that fails to acknowledge the deep beauty and value of humankind, it also doesn’t allow grounds for much to change. People cannot honestly be expected to change their immoral ways if they are intrinsically wicked, thus we would always be deserving of punishment from natural disasters at the whim of the almighty. Some would point out that this is the whole purpose of grace, which is a fine perspective, except that the application of grace would seem to contradict the concept of punishment through natural disaster. What purpose is there in extending grace and then deciding to send a tsunami or an earthquake anyway?

A simpler perspective is to assume that the natural world is neither tame nor intelligent. Natural disasters will happen, and sometimes people and communities will be within a dangerous proximity. There’s no reason to see those people as wicked or worthless, and honestly I don’t believe many people do. We have an opportunity in those moments to reassert our connection to one another, to do something to acknowledge the beauty and value of all people. It is not a divine warning message (or as powerful a fear-inducing morality lesson), but it does open an opportunity for our awareness to shift toward our ability to care for one another, an opportunity to be reminded of the things that are most important to us.

While whatever happened to those ancient cities was certainly tragic, there is no reason to attribute any more wickedness to them than any other concentration of people, and there is no reason to assume that they deserved to be destroyed. It may be simpler to see people who suffer from unexplainable catastrophe as lesser people, people deserving of what happened, wicked people. We don’t have to care as much about what happens to people like that, and we certainly don’t feel obligated to do much to help them. Perhaps it isn’t that much more difficult in times of such devastation to allow ourselves to be awakened to our commonalities as human beings, to recognize the preciousness of life and the beauty and power of human connection, and to act in accord.

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