As Winter Storm Rex moves across the Midwest, Minnesotans are again canceling their non-critical appointments and breaking out the rock salt. Peering out the back door and into the storm, I can just make out the outline of our garage. It’s fifteen feet away, but those flakes are falling pretty thick. Looks like another soup night here at Chateau Lu.
How many times this winter have we been sidelined by inclement weather? Between the Polar Vortex and a host of winter storms (now handily labeled with imposing names) Minnesotans have lost count. Even our southern brethren have joined in the teeth-gnashing this winter, which I actually find understandable. That Southern hoarfrost is no joke.
I still have one burning question: Why is God smiting us? Also, why aren’t more people worried about this?
I was under the impression that America was supposed to be an intensely religious country. Just a few short years ago, liberal journalists were promising us that theocracy was just around the bend. Now here we are in the middle of one of the worst winters anyone can remember, and the only people who can find a sermon in it are the “climate change” crowd. It’s a disgrace to conservative moralists everywhere.
How many storms will it take before conservatives face the obvious? I can understand that the creationists and intelligent design theorists may have gotten us all a bit wary of invoking divine agency as a causal explanation. If we start attributing divine motives to natural phenomena, we fear we may find ourselves having to eschew empirical meteorological evidence. (We won’t. Divine and natural causality are perfectly compatible. Christian philosophers worked this all out centuries ago.)
But let’s be honest here. Is there anyone left in this country who doesn’t think we have some affliction coming to us? We may disagree wildly about the disease and the symptoms, but a quick read through the news will affirm one point of agreement between left and right: our nation has fallen into a moral sinkhole of epic proportions. Repentance is clearly in order. Hearty shoveling seems like a good place to start.
There might still be one or two doubters out there, but let’s put them in the penalty box for a minute so we can play around with this divine wrath theory. Why is God smiting us? Liberals would presumably cite income inequality, along with nasty Republican initiatives to intensify the suffering of the poor. Conservatives might mention governmental corruption and waste, along with attacks on religious freedom. Let’s not forget the obvious: sex. More on that in a moment.
First let’s consider: what kind of historical precedent might provide insight into God’s mood and vengeance-wreaking proclivities? God rarely gives personal interviews, and when he does the mainstream press typically isn’t invited. Our best bet, then, is to examine previous episodes of divine vengeance in hopes of finding some patterns.
As the Book of Job reminds us, God’s ways are mysterious. It isn’t safe to view all misfortune as divine punishment, because God may have any number of providential reasons for inflicting suffering. Jesus himself addresses this in the Book of Luke when he declares that the eighteen people killed in the Tower of Siloam (a structure in the south of Jerusalem that had collapsed) were no more sinful than their countrymen. Not every catastrophe is a display of divine wrath.
Jesus clearly does not deny, however, that his Father may sometimes rain down brimstone (or ice?) on the wicked. He warns against gloating over the afflicted on the strength of rash assumptions. But he also warns the Israelites (and especially those whited-sepulcher Pharisees) that great misfortune will soon fall upon them if they do not repent. As a matter of self-examination, it’s surely wise to consider the possibility. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t see this awful winter as a divine compliment (unless possibly to some very pious children who have been praying for snow days). Regardless of whether God’s evil eye is most drawn to sex, violence, extravagant waste or religious indifference, we’re providing plenty of material to fuel for his anger.
Let’s start with sex, just to get our blood pumping. Does God destroy cities for sexual transgression? Some have argued that Sodom and Gomorrah were annihilated for that reason, though Genesis is fairly vague on this point. On a more individual level, King David is clearly punished for drawing the married Bathsheba into adultery. And even though it’s not discussed in any sacred text that I know, a visit to Naples’ “Forbidden Room” was enough to convince me that Mount Vesuvius has been used at least once as an instrument of divine vengeance. (Yowsers! If you ever have your kids with you in Naples, I strongly encourage you to take them to National Archaeological Museum. It’s a wonderful reminder that modern people most definitely did not invent sin.)
Without hammering out the details of a particular sexual ethics, it seems fair to say that if you have one at all, Americans are probably violating it on a colossal scale. Bestiality is still frowned upon here (so at least we have that on the ancient Italians), but otherwise we seem to be loving it up in almost every possible disturbing way.
To be sporting, I should at least entertain what would surely be the preferred liberal version of the divine wrath theory: Perhaps God is enraged by our lack of compassion for the poor. Republicans have been particularly zealous in attacking the poor of late, as we see in their opposition to extended unemployment benefits (a move that the Daily Kos’ Myles Spicer declares to be “a metaphor for right wing disdain, dislike, and distrust of the poor in our society”) and in the cuts they engineered to the food stamp budget.
In the Bible, God regularly affirms his regard for the poor. Looking at the matter in a historical context, however, liberals do have something of a structural problem. They regularly associate compassion with greater top-down redistribution of wealth, but Western nations already redistribute wealth on a historically unprecedented scale, and a few billion one way or another won’t change that. It should be said, however, that many Biblical passages do warn of the corrupting influence of wealth. Money is not per se evil in Biblical teaching, but its allure can be dangerous insofar as we come to prefer it over God.
Americans are certainly wealthy enough to worry about the corrupting influence of mammon. As an argument for more redistribution, though, it’s pretty weak tea. Taking people’s goods through taxation does little to reshape their priorities. It certainly doesn’t teach them generosity or good stewardship. If anything, liberal policies may increase our attachment to wealth, insofar as they teach us to defer to government as the agent responsible for helping the poor. I’ve never heard anyone say that a higher marginal tax rate brought them back to Jesus.
This brings us to religion. Perhaps God is angry about the attacks on religious freedom that are becoming increasingly brazen. Here in Minnesota, there does seem to be a noticeable correlation between recent bad winters and the uptick in religious persecution.
Now, to be fair, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not noteworthy for his commitment to religious freedom. However, he is quite assiduous about aiding the pious when their efforts to worship are thwarted by wicked representatives of an overweening government. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego discovered this in their encounter with the fiery furnace, as did Daniel in the lion’s den. The corrupt ministers of those tales came to decidedly nasty ends. Even more gruesome were the torments inflicted on the Pharaoh of Egypt when he refused to allow the Israelites to fulfill their religious duties. Might the polar vortex be God’s warning shot over the bow of overzealous secular liberals, who seem eager to strong-arm the faithful into complying with their social agenda?
Anyway, I encourage you to bring this up the next time a friend starts fretting about “climate change.” Divine wrath theory is just as falsifiable as climate science, but I know which I’d rather discuss.
Repent, America! Otherwise you may find that this bitterly cold season is followed by a much, much warmer one.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter.