Hurricanes.  Earthquakes.  Tsunamis.  Floods.  Droughts.  Volcanoes.  We live on a planet where nature sometimes shows itself in extreme activities.  And trying to make sense of destruction on such a mammoth scale has caused some to believe in God, others to reject the idea.  Even the unsentimental businessmen of the insurance industry speak of “Acts of God.”  Given recent events – and events still unfolding – it’s worth taking a look at our concepts of “Divine Retribution,” and more broadly, on the interaction of God, Humanity, and Nature.

Follow me below the fold as we explore some ideas different cultures have had on the matter over time…

During a 6 August 1998 broadcast of The 700 Club, Mr. Robertson addressed comments at participants of the Orlando, Florida, Gay Pride Festival, stating: “I would warn Orlando that you’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you.” reference


In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a long history of divine retribution against sinful behavior (for present purposes, we’ll define “sinful” as willfully choosing to do what you want, regardless of God’s thoughts on the matter).  The classic example of this is the story of Noah’s flood, where human wantonness results not only in the near-elimination of people, but all of nature.  It is only because a few humans were still “good” that any of nature was allowed to survive at all, by getting tickets on the ark.  One can question the justice in allowing such natural destruction for the misbehavior of one species, but that is consistent with the biblical view that nature is primarily scenery and backdrop for the stage on which the drama of God and humanity plays out.

“Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city,” stated Repent America director Michael Marcavage. “From ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to ‘Southern Decadence,’ New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. From the devastation may a city full of righteousness emerge,” he continued. reference

Fortunately for nature, God proposed the pact (covenant) sealed with the rainbow, and next time humans acted up, at Sodom and Gomorrah, the damage to nature was limited.  By the time of the Exodus, God is employing nature to enforce His will, from the plagues to the crossing of the Red Sea.  Through nature God provides for a faithful people (manna in the desert), and can turn against the uncooperative (Jonah’s one-way ride in the whale).

Consider the case of Pharaoh.  Here is a ruler who turns against God’s will – setting aside the point that God himself “hardened his heart” (!!) – and incurs the wrath of God in the form of natural disasters.  Interestingly, there’s not so much of natural calamity as wrath of God against the ruler in the Bible.  The typical pattern is that when an Israelite ruler (and people) turn against God, the country is militarily overrun and the people driven into exile (and the land may also suffer).

The New Testament continues the idea of nature as reflection of divine will.  Faithful people are healed, raised from the dead, and a multitude of them are fed with a few scraps of loaves and fishes.  The stormy sea is stilled by divine will.  On the other hand, even a barren fig tree is struck dead for the orneriness of not bearing fruit out of season when it was snack-time.  Deicide causes earthquakes and an eclipse.  And of course, the great dénouement comes in Revelation, where the sinfulness of humanity results in global cataclysms.  So how does this worldview compare with the thought of others in the Mediterranean world at the time?

In general, there was much more belief in omens than we find in the Bible.  Nature, rather than being just a backdrop against which the human/divine story unfolded, was a key part of the triad of the divine, the human, and the natural.  Omens were a means by which humans might find a sign of divine pleasure or displeasure.  Sacrifices were a two-way portal whereby nature provided a means of communication, and if need be, restitution, between humans and the gods.  As a result, whether in the day-to-day life of a commoner or in the halls of the emperor, we find rituals like examining the entrails of sacrificed animals for clues to the future.  Likewise, calamities were the result of direct actions by gods in response to actions by humans.  Or not.  The gods were sometimes fickle.

In 114 BCE, for example, a vestal virgin was struck by lightning and killed.  The population was horrified that such a symbol of Roman spiritual life should so die.  The senate formed a committee to investigate what could have caused such divine wrath.  The committee decided it was due to the virgin breaking her vow of chastity, and that others had done so as well.  The books of the Sibylline prophecies were consulted, and two couples, one Greek and one Gallic, were buried alive as a sacrifice of placation.

However, this interpretation of disasters as due to divine retribution didn’t always apply to the emperor himself.  For example, the emperor Titus (previously responsible for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD while his father Vespasian was being crowned emperor in Rome) had a disaster-plagued reign.  Only a month after becoming Emperor on his father’s death, the volcano Vesuvius (near modern Naples) erupted, destroying surrounding cities.  From our perspective, some today would see this as divine retribution for the sacking of Jerusalem, but this was not the case in his day, of course; he was a war hero for the campaign.  Titus’ response to the disaster seems eerily familiar:

Titus visited the stricken area, announced a state of emergency, set up a relief fund into which was put any property of victims who died with no heirs, offered practical assistance in rehousing survivors, and organized a senatorial commission to provide whatever help it could…

But his bad luck wasn’t over; while still in the region overseeing relief operations in 80 AD, a fire struck Rome and burned for three days.  Titus provided generous relief for the victims.  And a severe epidemic of the plague broke out; the emperor tried to combat the disease not only by providing medical support, but also by extensive sacrifices to the gods.  (Again, the theme of placation of deities)  He died in 81 AD, but was much beloved by the populace, who perhaps did not blame him for these calamities in part because he used some of his imperial wealth to build a splendid arena, the Flavian Amphitheatre (Flavian was his family name) in Rome:  the building we today know as the Colosseum (because in ancient times it had a colossal statue outside of it).

So it seems that in the popular Mediterranean mind while there might be divine wrath in the sometimes-dysfunctional family of the ancient gods, they also had their own inscrutable ways (one is reminded of the Book of Job), which might cause calamities for humans almost as an incidental afterthought.  And a pious, civic-minded emperor could well escape personal blame for calamities if he handled the situation afterward well; an outcome the Bush administration hopes to achieve (at least among the Right) today.  But in other parts of the world, the ruler didn’t necessarily get off so easily in the event of calamity…

In the interest of space, and because I know less about the cultures, I’m not going to comment on the Islamic world or the Indian subcontinent; if someone out there is familiar with those cultures please add to the discussion in the comments.  But I’m somewhat more familiar with Chinese culture, so I’ll say a bit there – though, again, correct me if I’m off base in something I say.

In looking at a non-western culture, I’m going to have to briefly lay some groundwork.  I’m incredibly compressing some ideas here, for which I apologize, but I don’t want to deplete Booman’s entire supply of electrons.

In Chinese thought, there is not a personal god (god with “a personality”); there is instead the Tao, which for those not familiar with it would be reasonably close to the concept of “the Force” in Star Wars.  It’s the source of the universe, the organizing principle of the universe (scientific laws would basically be manifestations of it), and pervades the universe (is immanent, in Western theological terms).  It is the natural order of things in the universe:

In harmony with the Tao, the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full, all creature flourish together,
content with the way they are, endlessly repeating themselves, endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles, creatures become extinct. (39)  

Since the Tao has no personality, the Chinese do not have the concept of the “wrath of God.”   But bad things still happen, so there has to be a different explanation, and there is.

The emperor in China ruled because he had been given the “Mandate of Heaven,” which meant that as long as his policies and actions were in accord with the principles of the Tao, the society would function well and disasters would be avoided.  Often this was a reasonable metaphor – the major rivers of China flood regularly, and it was necessary to keep dikes in good repair to prevent floods and subsequent famines and epidemics.  If the forests of an area were all cut down, the climate might dry up, again, resulting in famine and unrest.  Repeatedly, climate changes in China resulted in crop failure and famine, political instability, and changes in dynasty.

An emperor might lose the Mandate of Heaven by over-investing in armaments and conducting wars while the people and the infrastructure suffered.  The Tao Te Ching (“Book of the Tao and It’s Power”) puts it this way (Mitchell translation):

When a country is in harmony with the Tao, the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao, warheads are stockpiled outside the cities. (46)

Center your country in the Tao and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there, but you’ll be able to step out of its way.(60)

When a country obtains great power, it becomes like the sea: all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows, the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao, thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.   Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao, if it nourishes its own people and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others, it will be a light to all nations in the world.(61)

The concept of the “Mandate of Heaven” still resonates in Chinese culture, just as the concept of the “Wrath of God” resonates in our own.  The 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, for example, was said to portend the end of Mao’s reign.  Much of the secrecy that we see in the Chinese government regarding reporting outbreaks of SARS and bird flu to international health organizations, and in reporting environmental destruction in the country, come from a concern that such information would be interpreted as reflecting a government no longer acting in accord with the Tao / balance of nature, and would lead to revolution.  The thing to keep in mind, though, is that this wouldn’t be a religious revolution in Western terms.  Without a “God” the lines between religion, politics, and philosophy all blur, and what some take literally is metaphor for others – but no less a potent political force.  All agree the incompetent ruler should go if society is not operating for the good of the people and in harmony with nature (in Chinese thought, these two phrases are inseparable).

So what am I getting at?  This is all very interesting but does it have a point?  Am I saying we’re seeing divine wrath against Bush?  No, nothing so simplistic, despite the chuckles we all got when we saw this map posted on Kos and elsewhere.  The answer goes beyond Bush, and even beyond us individually.  In a time of compounding global crises and threats we need to examine the assumptions, behaviors, and beliefs that brought us as a society to this point, or we risk cataclysm, as Jared Diamond points out.  There have always been natural disasters, but our culture insists on living in a way that insufficiently takes into account our place in the natural world. Koyaanisqatsi.  

Commerce was important enough that we channeled the Mississippi River, so the sediment it carried could no longer replenish the marshes of the delta, resulting in a half-century of massive destruction of the protective coastal wetlands.  We build homes, hotels – even refineries! – right to the edge of the sea in hurricane-prone areas.  We build levees to allow hundreds of thousands of citizens to live in a city below sea level, and then neglect to properly construct and maintain the levees, so they break when most needed!  Our lifestyles have triggered global climate change, which experts increasingly are saying will bring not only tropical diseases and social upheaval, but even more Katrinas and Ritas in the future:

“Increasingly it looks like a smoking gun…”  
“It’s a fair conclusion to draw that global warming, caused to a substantial extent by people, is driving increased sea surface temperatures and increasing the violence of hurricanes.”
– Sir John Lawton, Chairman, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (UK)

We do not have the luxury of blaming “The Mandate of Heaven,” even if we feel it to be true in our hearts, for we get the government we are willing to tolerate. (Whatever happened to a government that embodied and made real our dreams – did that really die forever in Dallas in 1963?)  Unfortunately for nature, it gets the biosphere we humans deserve.  Our relationship between the human, the natural, and the divine comes down to what we call holy, call just, call true, and finally to what we individually and collectively make it – for ourselves and our posterity.  The ancient Greeks knew that all hubris will call forth its nemesis, and that has certainly been the story of recent life in America.  Getting rid of Republican control of government is only the barest start of the change of heart we are called to.  Recent events only underline that fact.

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