Till further notice, I’m going to stick with the daring theory that New Orleans was destroyed by a hurricane.
That bothers some of the holier folk I know, who are quite certain they discern in recent events the fate of sinners in the hands of an angry God. In the days following Katrina, I was inundated with email and blog links informing me that the drowning of New Orleans was due to such things as abortion, Mardi Gras, Southern Decadence Day, the Gaza Pullout, and the Big Easy’s guilt for being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres. To doubt that this fully explained the situation of children wandering around by themselves in the ruins of New Orleans, or to suspect that this was not the most helpful way to begin a conversation with a mother who just watched her baby die of thirst was, to some of the more prophetic among us tantamount to denying the sovereignty of God as Judge of the Universe.
However, my ears are not attuned to the frequencies by which he communicated these absolute truths to some. So I rely on the basic teaching of the Church without direct locutions from the Holy Spirit. When I do this, certain things emerge from this body of teaching:
First, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Second, God is in control of stuff (including weather).
Third, life is extremely mysterious.
Fourth, God is the judge of the world, not me and not even my most especially holiest Christian friends.
Fifth, if I were in the position of people in New Orleans, I would be strongly tempted to give a good swift kick to the holy ones whose first thought is not, “How can I help?” but “This is your fault, you know.”
Not that Christians are the only ones given to detailing the precise details of the mind of the Almighty, mind you. In addition to the normal rash of prophetic denunciations of the Great Whore on the Delta, I also got plenty of New Age denunciations of Christians for their grave sin of thinking God is a judge at all. Accordingly, an entirely different set of Anointed Prophets in Tune with the Infinite sent me emails and links to reveal that God had nothing whatever to do with the hurricane, and that God would, in fact, never do or say anything that did not affirm us unconditionally in our okayness.
Me? I believe God judges evil. I do not believe that I’m qualified to know every instance of his doing this. One person of my acquaintance was convinced that since I’m not ready, willing and able to connect the dots between Katrina and the various evils which found a home in New Orleans I denied that God is a judge at all. Meanwhile, my New Age correspondents thought that to believe God is Lord and Judge of the World was to blame the victims of Katrina.
The truth is elsewhere. I believe God judges evil. But the central fact of divine revelation is that God not only judges evil, he has already done so–on the Cross. Paul says as much:
And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15)
And he is only taking a page from his Master, who said as he went to that decisive battle with evil:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:7-11)
People seem to have the idea that the Real Judgment of God is found in cinematic events like Noah’s flood and the parting of the Red Sea. These are images of God’s judgment. They foreshadow the real judgment which took place on the Cross. If we want to really understand judgment (and mercy) in fullness, we have to look there. If we say, “Oh. Yeah. That. I guess.” and then turn eagerly away from it to the images we’ll be reading Scripture backwards. Real judgment takes place in the Cross and in our response to it. And like all real judgment, it not only reveals God to us, but reveals us to ourselves.
So I believe divine judgment is real-and that it typically occurs when God shows us our own faces. In the crucifixion, a terrible judgment is rendered against Caiaphas, against Pilate, against Peter and the disciples, against Judas. But the judgment is intrinsic to who they are. Those who make it through that terrible day of judgment with hope are the ones who, either at that time or eventually, choose to bear Jesus’ torment–the torment reserved for the accursed. Mary bore it immediately and fully. In the eyes of the Establishment who murdered her Son, she was also accursed and the rumors continued forever after about her alleged liaison with a Roman centurion who was the real father of Jesus. Those who came limping along after, smarting from their judgment like Peter, likewise shared in the curses that fell on Christ. But the respectable people–the people who were perfectly certain they knew why God had visited this punishment on Jesus and who were perfectly certain that he was being judged…. God help them.
Was New Orleans judged by this hurricane? Only in the sense that everything that happens to us can be a means by which God reveals himself and ourselves to us. Certainly, I think, we learned some very unpleasant things about ourselves in the wake of Katrina. But then again, I think as the stories of heroism and generosity emerge (as they will) we will also find that (at least some people) learned some very surprising and good things about themselves and others too.
Everybody remembers the people who were certain they saw a judgment on New York in 9/11. I’m one of them. And the judgment I saw was, “New Yorkers are awesome!” I was repeatedly moved to tears by the incredible stories of heroism, sacrificial love, and nobility that came out of that horrible moment. In a strange way, it helped me make sense, at an experiential level, of Paul’s talk in Romans about how the trials of this life are nothing compared with the glory to be revealed. It explained how an entire generation can look back fondly on a time of depression and war. Because judgment does not consist of our external circumstances. It is, rather, how we embrace God’s love and live it out under those circumstances.