This is an updated version of a post I wrote last year, as the Waldo Canyon fire burned in Colorado Springs. This week another fire raged, this time in Black Forest, on the northeast corner of the city.
Around 380 homes have been destroyed so far. At least one friend had to evacuate. Another lives in the middle of the burn zone. No word yet on his house, but several homes near his were destroyed.
Events like this are a sobering reminder of what to say — and what not to say — when those around us suffer loss.
Yesterday, photos of smoke, ash, and devastation began to fill my Facebook feed.
I have a lot of friends in Colorado Springs.
I heard from one who spent the evening watching ash descend on his house and praying it wouldn’t light. Another spent the morning watering her roof.
Then came the updates from those forced to evacuate — who don’t yet know whether their homes are still there.
As Christians, all we can say is Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.
But sadly, not everyone stops there when disaster strikes.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, John Hagee declared it to be God’s judgment on gays and lesbians.
When an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Pat Robertson blamed more than 300,000 deaths on a pact supposedly made between their ancestors and the devil centuries ago.
When a tornado threatened Minneapolis as the left-leaning ELCA gathered for its convention in 2009, John Piper speculated that the near-miss was God’s “gentle but firm warning” to repent.
But this time, it’s Colorado Springs. The home of Focus on the Family, Compassion International, The Navigators, and a hundred other evangelical, mostly conservative ministries. This is the veritable Jerusalem of the Rockies, with not one but three Christian radio stations.
So who’s going to stand up and explain this disaster for us? Who’s going to claim the prophet’s mantle, the inside track into the mind of God? Who’s going to tell us why he allowed and/or inflicted this disaster on Colorado Springs — and who he’s angry at this time?
Since Colorado Springs is a bastion of conservative evangelicalism, should we interpret the fire as God’s judgment on the religious right?
Of course not.
You see, whether or not God is meticulously sovereign — whether he just allows bad things to happen or determines each and every one of them — it takes takes a colossal amount of hubris for anyone to point a finger at someone else and say, “God brought this disaster on YOU.”
God may have used calamity to judge people in the past, but you and I are utterly without authority to say which disasters (if any) are divine judgments today.
“But unless you repent, you will all perish.”
In 2009, a tornado hit Minneapolis, just as ELCA leaders gathered to debate (among other things) their position on homosexuality. Within hours, John Piper took to his blog and quoted Luke 13:1-5 as proof the cyclone was God’s judgment against the Lutheran denomination.
The text in question reads:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
PIper assumed the tornado was divine retribution, in keeping with his belief that every disaster, natural or manmade, represents the judgment of a perpetually angry God.
But take a closer look at Luke 13.
Jesus learned that a number of Galileans — his people — had been slaughtered in the temple, on the orders of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Galilee at the time was a tinderbox of resentment against Roman occupation. (See this post for more about the political climate of first-century Galilee.) It’s likely these Galileans were killed in retaliation for some challenge to Pilate’s authority. Whether they were instigators or just “collateral damage” is unclear.
Whatever the case, the Galileans had long desired to be rid of their Roman oppressors. All they needed was a messiah who would rise up and lead them to a blood-soaked victory.
But when Jesus heard about these martyrs for the cause, he didn’t mince words. He told his listeners, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
This was not a sweeping call to repentance, lest some disaster overtake you. It was a warning to Jesus’ listeners: “Abandon your plans for armed revolt. Unless you repent of this futile uprising, the entire nation will perish.”
Which is exactly what happened in A.D. 70, when the temple was razed and Jerusalem destroyed.
Again, it was not a natural disaster Jesus was talking about in Luke 13. It wasn’t even divine judgment. It was manmade and self-inflicted.
The Bible gives no support to those who interpret every act of human suffering as divine judgment. Just the opposite. There’s one story where three individuals, too smart for their own good, are rebuked for doing what Piper, Hagee, and Robertson have done in our day.
When disaster strikes, we have but one response — whether the victims are our friends, strangers, or even our enemies. We are told simply to “mourn with those who mourn.”
So as Colorado burns, we put our hands over our mouths and say,