Sunday, January 24, 2010


"There but for the grace of God . . ." How many times have we heard this platitude from believers? But what does it mean?

James Wood writes an op-ed in today's The New York Times about people's attributions of natural disasters to God, such as now when Haiti has just suffered the most awful earth quake.

Wood makes the point that attributing such natural disasters to "God" has the logical inference of making "him" into either a totally capricious force that snuffs the life of thousands of Haitians, many of them children and infants, sort of by accident, or that the deity is mean and vindictive, intent on ending people's precarious lives, probably because they or their nation committed a great sin or sins and so deserve divine wrath and retribution. (See Pat Robertson's comments.)

Enter now comments, certainly made in good if unthinking faith, by Pres. Barack Obama, where he says that, "but for the grace of God, there we go."

Writes Wood:

"In his speech after the catastrophe, President Obama movingly invoked “our common humanity,” and said that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors?

"The president was merely uttering an idiomatic version of the kind of thing you hear from survivors whenever a disaster strikes: “God must have been watching out for me; it’s a miracle I survived,” whereby those who died were presumably not being “watched out for.” That President Obama did not really mean this — he clearly did not — is telling, insofar as it suggests how the theological language of punishment and mercy lives on unconsciously, well after the actual theology has been discarded.

"Or has it? If the president simply meant that most of us have been — so far — luckier than Haitians, why didn’t he say that? Perhaps because, as a Christian, he does not want to believe that he subscribes to such a nonprovidential category as luck, or to the turn of fate’s wheel, which is really a pagan notion. Besides, to talk of luck, or fortune, in the face of a disaster seems flippant, and belittling to those who have been savaged by such bad luck. A toothache is bad luck; an earthquake is somehow theological.

Why God should favor Americans and keep them safe but disfavor Haitians and kill them in the thousands seems to be lost in Obama's comments. But as Wood points out the tradition of thanking God after natural disasters seems rooted in the religious point of view that ascribes God's providence and handiwork to all human events. If I were Haitian, I would resent not only Robertson's accusation of sinfulness or evil but also the line taken by those believers who thank God for sparing them, and too bad for those unfortunates who happen to be among those injured, killed or damaged by the quake.

1 comment:

  1. God is a good and loring God, it is written that these thing will happen, God have no prospect of Person, death is just another face of life that we all must deal. It is a far better place that they who have left us. God loves not only America but all of his creations, Grace is what see us through his grace which is ever lasting.