What is more troubling than Pat Robertson's remarks?
By Selwyn Duke
Of all the responses to the devastation in Haiti, the most copy-worthy is televangelist Pat Robertson's claim that the earthquake was divine retribution. In making his case, he told a story about how Haitian leaders long ago made a pact with Satan, promising to serve him if he would help vanquish their French oppressors. The Devil delivered, said Robertson, but the consequence is that the nation has ever since been cursed, with one disaster befalling it after another. It was reminiscent of when the late Jerry Falwell said — and Robertson agreed — that those who have authored America's descent into sin were partially responsible for 9/11.
Not surprisingly, the response today is much as it was back then. Robertson has been roundly criticized in media, by the left, right and center. Yet there's something more troubling than his remarks.
Just for the record, I don't share Robertson's theology. While I do believe there can be such a thing as the wrath of God, I also know that God has both ordained will and permissive will. The former, of course, is when God intervenes and makes something happen; miracles, in the typical sense, fall into this category. And many have believed in divine intercession. For instance, Ben Franklin once said, "the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that God governs in the Affairs of Men."
In contrast, permissive will is when God allows other forces — such man's free will — in the Universe free rein. I believe most events fall into this category, although I'm certainly not inclined to argue about what percentage of all happenings they might be. I'm also not inclined to argue about the category into which the Haitian earthquake falls. I'll simply note that disasters, like death, touch the Hades-bound and holy alike. I'll also point out that Robertson's story about the Haitian rebels' pact with Beelzebub seems more urban legend than cause of urban devastation. Yet more ridiculous than the televangelist's comments is something inherent in the criticism of him.
Many lambasting Robertson are Christians who believe in miracles and sometimes pray for God's intercession. Yet, while they believe He may reward and rescue us, they certainly don't seem to believe that He would apply the rod. Now, many would say this is because He is loving God, not a vengeful one; of course, others might say a loving father knows that love involves discipline. But I'd like to focus on a different matter.
Why do people take such umbrage at Robertson's remarks? Now, I don't ask why they disagree; to reiterate, I part ways with him theologically myself. Yet I'm not offended. I don't act as if his commentary is as bad as a phony reverend screaming "God d*** America!" from the pulpit — which, I should emphasize, isn't just saying that God has punished America. It is asking Him to damn America. And let us be clear: Damnation in Christian thought is something infinitely worse than sending a natural or manmade disaster our way. It is wishing on your target the worst thing possible: eternal separation from God. We should also note the context of that esteemed man of the cloth's remarks. He was saying that 9/11 was our just deserts, that, as he put it, "America's chickens have come home to roost." Only, unlike the pastoral admonishment of Robertson and Falwell, he spewed the words with venom. And I don't remember the chickens in the media condemning him as they did those two men. But I digress.
The larger point is that there is nothing un-Christian about a belief in God's wrath. The Bible is replete with examples of it, such as Noah's Ark and the great flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah. And when the Crusades (which, mind you, were a response to Moslem aggression) weren't successful, medieval Christians viewed it as punishment for their sins. They then aimed to purify themselves, and piety movements arose all across Europe.
Yet, while many view this thinking as backward and superstitious, it isn't always because they scoff at the idea of the supernatural; as I said, millions believe in miracles. Rather, it is because so many believe they have nothing to purify.
Truth be known, what really angers people is the implication that we could be deserving of such punishment. It's just a very unfashionable idea in our I'm-OK, you're-OK, self-esteem-and-candy culture. Yet the belief reflected by this anger is far more contrary to authentic Christianity than anything Robertson has said.
Central to Christianity is the idea that we're deserving of the worst punishment — of damnation itself. As the Bible says, "All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God." Yet we won't necessarily get what we deserve because God is merciful. But this doesn't mean He would not, under any circumstances, administer lesser punishment. I suppose you could say it's much like the difference between a pagan Roman father and a good Christian one. As the paterfamilias, the former had the authority to even kill his children if it suited him. Thankfully, no average father today would contemplate such a thing, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't put hand to hindquarters on occasion.
Also, before one judges a Christian harshly for speaking of God's wrath, it's important to understand the idea within the context of Christianity. As the one who gave us life, God has the right to take it away.
But He doesn't.
Upon leaving this fold, we pass on to eternal life. And if God takes people from this world but then invites them into His kingdom, is it not a blessing? Now, I well understand that this sounds ridiculous to secular ears that find the very concept of an afterlife silly. But we've all heard of the importance of putting yourself in another's shoes, of understanding his "perspective." There's nothing sillier than judging someone's intentions — what's going on in his mind — without trying to grasp the world view shaping that mind.
Most interesting, though, is the modern man's belief in his own sanctity. Some would say this problem is a result of a lack of introspection, but, in a way, it's also a result of nothing but introspection. And this is largely a function of moral relativism. I'll explain.
The question here boils down to what you use to judge your moral state. If you use Moral Truth — that is, something existing apart from man that constitutes perfect moral law — you will always find yourself wanting as you can never be perfect, never measure up to it. Sure, not everyone has the same grasp of morality; some are blind to many of its elements; some see elements that aren't there. Some are blind to many of their own faults. Nevertheless, it's hard to believe in Truth, in perfection, and also believe that you truly reflect it.
But if there were no Truth, there would be no morality. After all, if there is no external reality on which to base right and wrong — if, as the Greek philosopher Polybius said, "Man is the measure of all things" — it is simply an invention of man. This is why relativists shy away from the term "morality" and instead prefer "values," which usually refers not to divine or "natural" law but to social constructs. But, then, what are values? What are we really talking about? What are we actually using as a yardstick for judging "moral" state? It then could only one thing, emotion — consensus or individual. This accounts for the popularity of the animalistic credo, "If it feels good, do it."
But then, whose feelings should hold sway? A person could use those of the wider society, and there certainly is social pressure to do so. And given that our relativistic, feel-good culture has dumbed down standards to rubber-stamp what is pleasurable (part of which is sin), our collective set of values is far from perfect. Thus, it's easy to view yourself as "OK" relative to it.
More significantly, though, if values are relative and feelings carry the day, why should we defer to other people's feelings? After all, I'm a person just as you are. Why should you be the arbiter of my "moral" standard? Don't impose your values on me, you intolerant oaf.
The individual then uses his own emotions as the yardstick for what his relativistic mind can only call morality. Then, since his "morality" is just a reflection of himself, he will conform to it perfectly. This is the process by which one deifies himself. It is when he finds the only kind of being this side of Heaven who could establish moral standards: the god "within." And then don't dare suggest that he deserves punishment, for that is an offense against the perfect. Is it any wonder that many so-called Christians today no longer believe in Hell?
Of course, not everyone descends into complete self-delusion. But the more relativism blinds our eyes to the yardstick that reveals imperfection, the more we start to mistake our warts for marks of distinction.
I don't think the Haitian earthquake, 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment. But I do know this: It is not dangerous to believe that God would wash away wickedness with a great flood. It is very dangerous to believe it wouldn't matter anyway, because we can walk on water.