Saturday Night Theologian
13 January 2008

Isaiah 42:1-9 (first published 9 January 2005)

The tsunami hit suddenly and without warning the day after Christmas. A British journalist was swimming in the Indian Ocean near a resort island, when suddenly he felt the sea begin to rise beneath him. He managed to grab hold of a boat that was tied to a pier, and he held on for dear life as the ocean crested beneath him and again as it withdrew, sucking with it everything that would float and was not anchored. Afterward, as he surveyed the damage, he saw dozens of houses flattened, boats carried inland half a mile and crushed on rocks, and people looking for loved ones. Across Sri Lanka, southern India, Thailand, and Indonesia, hundreds of thousands were without homes, and at least 150,000 were dead. Nations around the world responded, some generously, some not so generously. The U.S., the world's richest nation, initially promised $15 million, but when Japan offered $500 million, the U.S. upped its promise to $350 million. Nations such as Germany, Australia, and Norway pledged enormous amounts, relative to their size, and even the impoverished country of Mozambique offered $100,000 to aid the victims. In a disaster like this one, the world can see what community really is, and it can also judge the values of various nations. Isaiah speaks of God's servant, endowed with God's spirit, who will establish justice on the earth. How will he do it? "A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench." God's servant will establish justice through prophetic words and acts of compassion. Too often Christians (and those of other faiths) have seen military might as indicative of God's blessing on one country or another. The British Empire saw itself as God's servant, spreading Christianity and "civilization" in the same way as the Spanish Empire had before and the American Empire does today. But establishing justice rarely requires overwhelming force of arms. On the contrary, military ventures are almost always reflective of national ambition and a desire for Lebensraum, whether colonial or economic. Who is God's servant in the world today? Not any one country, though some approximate the ideal of compassion and justice much more closely than others. How can we evaluate the "servanthood" factor of a country? One way is by examining the nation's budget, because how a country spends its money indicates its true priorities. The U.N. has set a goal for industrialized countries to set aside 0.7% of their budgets for humanitarian foreign aid (as opposed to military foreign aid). Very few countries have attained that goal, though the Scandinavian countries are leading the way. The world average among developed countries is about 0.25%, and the U.S. is currently giving less than 0.1%. It is time for Christians and other people of faith to tell their governments that being part of the world community entails concern for others, not in empty words but in concrete acts of generosity. The prophet says that God's servant will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth. Jesus has shown us what justice is. It is up to Christians to insist that their governments and institutions, including the church, promote it.

Psalm 29 (first published 9 January 2005)

Where was God when the tsunami hit? "The Lord sits enthroned over the flood," the psalmist says. Was the tsunami truly an "act of God"? Are any natural disasters really acts of God, in the sense that God ordained them? The question of why God allows catastrophic events to occur is as old as the belief in God. One possible answer to the question is that God is punishing people for their sins. Such an attitude seems to get a boost from the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, but only if Abraham's probing question is ignored: "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? . . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Those who perished in the flood waters in south and southeast Asia were no more wicked than people anywhere else in the world. Perhaps the flood was in response to a lack of faith among the people? But Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and others lost their lives pretty much indiscriminately. Interestingly, there was one group of people living in the path of the tsunami that apparently suffered few or no losses. This group consists of the inhabitants of several small islands off the southern tip of India, tribes of people called the Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Onges, Sentinelese, and Shompens. These people are isolated culturally, religiously, and linguistically from the rest of the world, and their lifestyle reflects that of their remote ancestors in the Stone Age, perhaps 70,000 years ago. Some scientists suggest that their closeness to nature allowed them to pick up on signs of impending disaster that more "civilized" people missed. Is civilization itself the sin that God is punishing? Perhaps in part, as I will explain below. I don't think that divine punishment is a factor at all in the disaster, but sin is a factor. However, it is not the sins of the people directly affected, but rather the sins of wealthy and developed nations--and wealthy and developed parts of the countries that were affected. "Civilization" often leaves many people behind and in fact worse off, relatively speaking, than they would have been without the influence of civilization. If a tsunami of similar size were to hit southern Florida or southern California, both of which are also densely populated, loss of life would be much less. Why? First of all, warning systems are in place to protect the wealthier parts of the world, but no such warning system is in place in the Indian Ocean. Second, sturdier construction techniques and more stringent (or existent) building codes yield structures that are not as fragile as the huts of many of those who were killed. Third, lack of education, poverty, and overpopulation--the detritus of civilization--feed on one another and contribute to a disproportionate number of poor people living in areas and under conditions that are more susceptible to natural disaster. (Why else would Hurricane Mitch in Honduras kill thousands while four hurricanes in Florida in 2004 killed only a handful?) God indeed sits enthroned on the flood, but God is not responsible for all the death and destruction of nature. Natural disasters act without prejudice, and innocent people are often killed. However, people of faith who understand the nature of structural injustice and can trace its effects can speak out and act in ways to mitigate the effects of nature on the world's weakest and most vulnerable people.

Acts 10:34-43

This week President Bush traveled to Israel and Palestine for the first time in his presidency. He was the first American president to visit the Palestinian equivalent of the White House in Ramallah, and he issued words that, on the surface at least, sounded tough toward the Israelis as well as the Palestinians, a first for this president. He called on Israel to withdraw from the territories they occupied after the Six Day War in 1967, and he said that Israel would have to find a way either to allow Palestinians to return to their ancestral homelands in the state of Israel or to compensate them fairly. As I said, on the surface, his words were tough, and if they had been delivered in the first year of his presidency rather than his last, they might have carried more weight. As it is, it is a case of too little, too late. I'd like to think that the president, who once called Ariel Sharon a "man of peace" and who had steadfastly refused to be personally involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, has finally come around to the realization that playing favorites in the negotiations--that is, consistently siding with the Israelis against the Palestinians--will never bring about peace. I'm afraid, however, that he is on a desperate quest for a positive legacy, and he hopes that he can preside over a quick resolution to a long-standing problem in the Middle East. Despite the unlikelihood of success during the remaining months of his term in office, I hope that the president has at least genuinely begun to recognize the importance of looking at all sides of an issue and not just picking one side and stridently advocating for it. When Peter was in Cornelius's house, he personally witnessed the Spirit of God descend on the Gentiles, a group of people that he thought was less favored by God than his own kin, the Jews. Suddenly the realization hit him: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." Unlike us, God has no favorites, not Jews, not Christians, not Muslims, not Hindus, no one. Peter came to understand that God has followers in every nation, among every people, those who fear God and do what is right. There are good Israelis and good Palestinians, just like there are good Americans, good Italians, and good Kenyans. Those who work to bring people together, to establish peace in the world, to bring about reconciliation between warring factions and estranged brothers and sisters, these are the kinds of people whom God favors. Americans pay too much attention to labels, especially religious labels, and too little attention to the way people really are. We want to know whether Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, is really a Christian, or whether Rudy Giuliani or Barack Obama are really people of faith. What we really should be asking is, what kind of a president would this person make? We've had seven years of a president who is apparently an orthodox, convinced Christian, but what do we have to show for it? Wars, uninsured millions, and a low standing in the eyes of the world. How does the president's faith help those whose lives have been unalterably changed by his policies? While he is at work trying to build a positive legacy--and I truly hope he is successful in bringing about a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians--it is time for the rest of America to choose a president, not on the basis of his or her religious beliefs, or lack thereof, but on the basis of that person's leadership ability, experience, vision for the future, and commitment to do what is right.

Matthew 3:13-17 (first published 9 January 2005)

In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God is frequently portrayed as descending on people and giving them power to accomplish an extraordinary feat. Thus the Spirit of God descends upon Samson, and he exhibits feats of great strength. The Spirit of God comes on Elijah, and he outruns a chariot. The Spirit of God is also sometimes associated with the proclamation of the prophets. Thus, when the evangelist describes the Spirit of God descending on Jesus at his baptism, those acquainted with the Old Testament should not be surprised. The descent of the Spirit is symbolic of God's anointing Jesus with power to perform his public ministry and passion. The story of Jesus' baptism has been controversial since the earliest days of Christianity. That controversy is already apparent in Matthew's version of the story, in which John protests that Jesus ought to be baptizing him rather than the other way around. Jesus urges him to "permit" his baptism in order to "fulfill all righteousness," whatever that means. The other evangelists omit the conversation between John and Jesus, and it is likely that the statement about "fulfilling all righteousness" is related to Matthew's penchant for tying significant events in Jesus' life with the fulfillment of scripture. Most manuscripts report the voice from heaven as saying to Jesus, "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased." However, a few ancient witnesses, including Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria (and even more witnesses in Luke's version of the baptism), report that the voice said, "You are my son, today I have begotten you," quoting Psalm 2:7. The debate over what the voice actually said and what the significance of the Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove whirled around the theories concerning the divine and human natures in Jesus, including the Adoptionist Controversy. The imagery is only a problem, however, if we push the words beyond their intended symbolic function and try to make them literal, one way or the other. The baptism of Jesus has several applications for contemporary Christians. First, Jesus' humility in allowing himself to be baptized by John (a baptism of repentance, remember) reminds us that we should always be humble in our dealings with people, never assuming an air of superiority. Second, the imagery of God's Spirit descending on Jesus reminds us that we cannot accomplish God's work without God's power. Third, the voice from heaven, regardless of what it said, reminds us that God is pleased with us when we do God's work, and in so doing we become God's faithful children.