Monday, August 24, 2009

John Piper Makes Me Rub My Eyes and Say, "Aaaaah"

Via The Paris Project, I had the opportunity to read Reformed speaker/author John Piper react to a recent tornado touching down in Minneapolis the same day that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America took its vote on the issue of accepting openly gay clergy:
"The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners."
I have several reactions to this, some of which are incredibly snarky.

First, one can find theological reactions like this to any sort of disastrous happening. Consider, for instance, Hurricane Katrina and the legions of prophets who came out of the woodwork proclaiming that it was God's judgment on New Orleans for its debauchery. Michael Spencer makes the same comparison, along with the observation that the French Quarter was left largely untouched. So maybe it was God's judgment on poor people for being lazy.

It's been notable to me that whenever these proclamations are made about such tragedies, it's by someone removed from the situation looking in and playing "Where's Waldo the Sinner?" God's judgment almost always happens where All Those Awful People Are Over There. I would have been interested in hearing whether anyone in the Lower Ninth Ward or in downtown Minneapolis had reached the same conclusion as the enlightened theologians comfortably watching from afar.

I do need to acknowledge that Piper is a Minneapolis pastor, but he's the exception that proves the rule. And it remains that his statement is about Those People Over There. If we just look hard enough for the people we don't like or disagree with, we can come up with an explanation for why these things happen.

Second, I'm reminded of an ill-advised argument that I got into a while back on the now-defunct Wesley Blog with a guy who shared his story of being in ministry, and getting caught one day in the middle of a drive-by shooting. He'd concluded that it was Satan trying to stop him from engaging in ministry. In a not-so-pastoral moment, I disagreed that such an event was set up just for him; that it seemed to be an incredibly self-centered view of the world, but that it did make sense to think that Satan did not cause the event but could use the event to breed discouragement.

When we consider the tornado, it is dubious to think that God inflicts suffering just to send a message to an individual or smaller contingent within the affected area, or that God afflicts someone with a disease to get at one of his or her relatives. The amount of suffering or the contingent that suffers rarely matches the alleged "message" being sent, such as the Katrina example above or Robertson and Falwell's explanation that God killed over 3000 people in New York to send a message to liberals and feminists. Piper argues that this tornado was very specific, and thus more of an indication that it was meant just for the ELCA. And yet other area businesses and homes were caught up in the destruction as well, not to mention another tornado striking an elementary school 50 miles away. Why didn't God just cause a power failure in the convention center or cause the entrance doors to stick? That would have been much more precise.  And what was happening at the elementary school that invited a second tornado?

Whether God causes suffering or works through suffering to enact redemption are two different things. In the former, God is vindictive and almost always leaves a lot of collateral damage. In the latter, God works out of a place of resurrection to bring strength and wholeness.

Finally, is all suffering caused by God? Is every child suffering from leukemia being punished? Or every person who is injured or killed in a car accident? Or every couple dealing with a miscarriage or stillbirth? Did the people of Rwanda do something to deserve genocide? If one dug deep enough in each instance, one could probably strain to twist something into a sin-related reason for the affliction to have occured. But how adequate would such an explanation be? And are you going to be the one who tells them?

Piper cites a passage from Luke that I do find applicable, but for different reasons:
Jesus: “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:4-5)
His explanation is that the tower falling, and likewise the tornado, may not have been deliberate for the specific victims (which counters his whole argument about the ELCA), but is a reminder that we all need to repent or perish.

And yet, to begin with, Jesus doesn't offer an explanation for the tragedy. He explicitly states that the people killed by the tower weren't worse sinners than anyone else and we shouldn't make such conclusions. You know, like the conclusion that Piper makes about the tornado. Except it was a general message to repent, not just for them.

And once again, I rub my eyes and say, "Aaaaah..."


Scott Alan said...

Good thoughts. You might want to italicize the Piper quote, or find another way to set it off - it looks as though it's your thoughts at first glance.

Many, many Lutherans on FB commented on the tornado being a warning. Many others suggested it was Favre signing with the Vikings. I leave it to others to decide.

Your comment about these beliefs being incredibly self-centered is one I'll remember for the next time I hear such a thing. Thanks.

Josh R said...

I think that if you look at Piper's comments about Katrina, The Tsunami, The bridge collapse in MN, his comments have always carried the same warning. It is a warning to all of us to Repent.

It just happens that this disaster "coincidentally" injured some very specific people who needed to repent. To ignore that is to ignore reality. It was not a significant injury at that. Basically it blew their breakfast tents down the road - and it tore the cross off their church, Somthing that God is well within his rights to do if he so chooses.

If God did want a specific group to repent, what would he have to do? Is there any sign or wonder that would work?

The fact that other people are injured by God's Wrath is well established See Numbers 16:32, or Numbers 21:5-6 for example. To day that it would be unjust for God to injure the business down the street is injecting the underlying assumption that the business owners down the street is sinless. Sin kills, and we all deserve death. God was merciful and only broke stuff (And not people) this time.

Jeff Nelson said...

It seems that you've skimmed my post at best, Josh.

So tragedy and suffering are calls for all of us to repent. How about those kids with leukemia, or crash victims, or the couples grieving a stillbirth? Should we dig until we find some sin-related justification? Or maybe God made an example of them for the rest of us? What was happening at that elementary school that God had to bring them into it?

I've also read reports that that same storm moved up to Canada and killed an 11-year-old. It's incredibly self-centered for me to look at that and say, "God killed that kid so that I would repent."

Piper cites the tower story, but I think he gets the interpretation wrong. Jesus says that the people who were killed weren't any worse sinners than the rest of us, and people shouldn't assume that they were. And yes, he uses it as a handy call to repentance. But he doesn't say that that's why the tower fell to begin with.

I've given a few things that God could have done to prevent collateral damage. And both you and Piper seem to start with the tornado being a specific omen for the ELCA, but by the end state that it was for everyone. I'm not assuming anything about the business owners. If this was supposed to be all about the ELCA, why bring others into it? But if it was a general call to repentance, why hone in on the ELCA's presence? Sounds like advocates for God's punishment want to play both sides here.

Jesus interacted with sinners much more positively than God does in Numbers. The ones he was more harsh toward were the ones who advocated for judgment and exclusion. Remember the story of the Samaritan village that rejects Jesus, and Jesus rebukes James and John for wanting to rain fire down on them? I think people rushing to make theological statements about tornadoes and hurricanes would do well to read up on that one.

Unknown said...

I believe Piper is the Baptist pastor included in an NPR segment about religious leaders after the tsumani who essentially viewed the event as a learning moment for HIMSELF!!! I found this appalling. What is God teaching me, he asked, and then used his first and last name, through this tsunami? It's a shockingly limited way to view the world.

Cody said...

I'm proud of being from Minnesota--most of the time. Whenever John Piper is mentioned, however, a little bit of that pride washes away and is replaced with guilt.

Piper also wrote some none sense tract regarding "The Da Vinci Code" and donated hundreds of copies to Baptist churches across the state. That was during the period of time that I attended a Baptist church with my dad. Boy, did I feel awkward walking out of the movie with my friends and being accosted by church people. Those days are over now.

Whenever I see an article by Piper, I just skip over it. He's ranked up there with Falwell in my book.

Your reflections were spot on, Reverend.

Questing Parson said...

Is it not interesting that those who see tragedies being a message from God never consider the fact that the message might be addressed to THEM.