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According to Religious Right leaders, hurricanes like Katrina are God’s judgment against persecution of Christians (Henry Blackaby), abortion (Pat Robertson), homosexuality and a lot of other human failings.

Or do they think it’s really people guilty of such offenses who caused it? Franklin Graham sees it as God’s plan to launch a moral reformation.

I must confess that I don’t spend a lot of time trying to interpret hurricanes, earthquakes or tsunamis, but I do regularly read and meditate on scriptures.

One can find texts of Scripture which seem to back the idea of judgment or plan for reformation.

Job’s friends insisted that Job had sinned and thus brought the wrath of God down on his head.

“As I have seen,” declared Eliphaz the Temanite, “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed” (Job 4:8-9).

He and the others piled it on, Job’s protestations of innocence and inability to understand what was happening notwithstanding.

I suppose it’s inevitable for us to ask where God is and what God intends when hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters snuff out hundreds of innocent lives. But the kinds of answers some are giving show how important it is to recognize the diversity of answers scriptures may supply and to use a sensible approach to interpreting them.

Will you follow Job’s friends or Job? Jesus went Job’s way. Tragedies say nothing about degrees of sinfulness, but they can be “wake up” calls, for they precipitate soul searching.

In Jesus’ day some singled out two disasters–Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans at worship and the crushing of 18 when the tower of Siloam fell on them–as almost certain proof of divine judgment on the rankly sinful. Jesus disputed that vigorously. Neither the Galileans nor the Jerusalemites were the worst of the worst. We are all sinners in need of repentance, and we should prepare to face God always (Luke 13:1-5).

More to the point still, Jesus imaged God as a God of such love as to show no partiality.

Typically we mortals “love our neighbor,” as the commandment requires, but “hate our enemy.”

As a response to the culture of hate, which so easily shapes us in its mold, Jesus demands that we “love our enemies” just as God does so we may be “children of God.”

On what basis could he make such a judgment? The works of God’s hands; nature shows us that “God makes the sun shine on both evil and good and pours rain on both righteous and unrighteous” (Mt 5:43-46).

The tsunamis of the Indian Ocean basin and Hurricane Katrina confirm Jesus’ perspective. The wealthy and privileged doubtless fared better in getting out of the destructive path because they had the resources to do so, the poor and deprived less so because they didn’t.

Insofar as I can see, nature spared neither good nor bad, righteous nor unrighteous. Whorehouses and churches, gambling casinos and seminaries, robbers’ lairs and hospitals all got the same treatment.

Where was God in all of that? The answer which comes through most forcefully from scriptures is: in the midst of human suffering. If that is not what Job was finding out through his years of anguish, it surely is what the Advent story unfolding before us makes crystal clear. God is Immanuel, “God with us.”

None grasped that better than the erstwhile zealot of the rabbinic holiness movement, Saul of Tarsus, when Christ humbled him on the road to Damascus and commissioned him as the Apostle Paul.

The Jesus story, above all the Cross, starkly reminds us that God is not only for us, but with us in “affliction or tough times or persecution or famine or utter deprivation or danger or war,” for nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom 8:35, 39).

God is with us all in suffering and compassion.

E. Glenn Hinson is senior professor of church history and spirituality at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

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