By now, you’ve heard of the wildfires that tore through Colorado last week. Over 30,000 people had to be evacuated and damages are still being assessed. What you haven’t heard is the typical chorus of Christian leaders theologizing on the Why.
That’s strange, because – as this excellent article points out – nearly every other disaster in recent memory has elicited theological interpretation from various leaders in the Evangelical community. Jerry Falwell attributed the 9/11 attack on God’s judgment of America’s tolerance of same-sex romance and abortion. Hurricane Katrina was a similar judgment of homosexuality. Back in 2009 and then again earlier this year, New Calvinism’s godfather John Piper attributed tornadoes to God’s warning of impending wrath. And Pat Robertson blamed the devastating Haiti Earthquake on an old pact the citizens apparently made with the Devil.
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The Colorado Wildfires are just the sort of disaster we’d expect to stir the theological waters. Massive damage. Death. National attention. So where are all our lesser angels, rushing to interpret this for us?
In other words, why isn’t anyone stepping forward to tell us Why in Colorado?
Charitably, we can hope that Robertson, Piper and the rest of them have finally learned that we can’t discern the will of God, that Theodicy (the fancy theological word for “Why do Bad things Happen to Good People?”) is beyond our ability to grasp.
I hope this is true. But I’m afraid there’s a simpler, baser reason we’ve not heard anything about God’s judgment on Colorado:
Colorado – specifically Colorado Springs – is a major Evangelical powerbase: U. S. News dubbed it the Evangelical Vatican in 2005. From locally-based organizations like Focus on the Family and Navigators to the strong presence of the Evangelical Press Association and National Association of Evangelicals, what happens in Colorado Springs echoes in the pulpits of many a church across the US.
Could the reason Christian leaders have been silent on the wild fires simply be because this time they’re burning in our own backyard?
Despite Jesus’ call to love our enemies and treat everyone like insiders even if they’re not “on our team”, we don’t do a very good job of acting that out. We still tend towards territorialism and partisanship. Our churches and our friend groups tend to be full of people like us.
It’s human nature to fear outsiders, to paint them as evil because they’re different. Jesus observes that’s how most people work:
“If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?”
— Matthew 5:46-47 (NLT, emphasis mine)
The reality is: Bad Stuff happens. And sometimes it happens to Them, to those Other people. And when It happens to Them, it’s a normal, human response to attribute It to God’s judgment on Their failings. To the ways They aren’t like Us.
But then that same Bad Stuff happens to Us. And suddenly, we’re not so keen to attribute It to God’s judgment on sin and failure. Because that would mean admitting that God isn’t on Our side. It would mean that God is on God’s side and We are as broken as Them.
This isn’t just something a few loudmouth Christian leaders struggle with. We’re all tempted to offer explanations we don’t actually have. Explanations make us feel in control, which makes us feel safe.
Admitting that we don’t have special insight into God’s Ways isn’t comfortable, but it is biblical.
Instead of theological posturing, we should allow natural disasters such as this to humble us. Like Job, when faced with the mystery and terror of which creation is capable, we should respond not with confident theological posturing, but by saying,
“I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me… I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” — Job 42:3-6 (NLT)
So do the people of Colorado need to repent of their sin? Probably – we all do. But is that why the Wild Fire devoured so much of the state? I have no idea. I’m not qualified to make that call. And neither are you.
If we’re going to open our mouths after a natural disaster or national tragedy, it should be in prayer for those affected.
And we should join in to help where we can, whether they’re on Our Team or not. That’s what Jesus does. In fact, if you want to donate to the Wild Fire relief efforts, click here.