Why is the existence of God and the degree of divine engagement in the created order always such a pressing concern for the comfortable armchair debaters when disasters strike? Is the question of "why God allows the innocents to suffer" in the context of the earthquake in Haiti a way to evade concrete, sacrificial and transformative action?
Members of Hungarian Baptist Aid assisted with the medical evacuation of two people injured during the earthquake in Haiti. (Photo: Hungarian Baptist Aid)
In one camp are some who detest Christianity and ridicule belief in God. Natural disasters provide them with a platform to pontificate against religion.
"I listened to an earthquake survivor this morning on the 'Today' show, and he concluded that he was rescued from the rubble because 'God must have a plan for me.' Right. And what about God's plan for the dead and the mutilated?" wrote one atheist soon after the earthquake shattered Haiti.
"How can anyone cherish these childish, narcissistic notions about a loving god who elects him to survive and others to perish? I am an atheist, so I do not have to torture myself by looking through the Bible or any other supposedly sacred book for an explanation of the inexplicable and a justification of the unjustifiable," she wrote.
A second atheist favored primitive religion over modern religion because "tribal religions" blessed and blamed God, unlike contemporary religions.
"The idea that God is a worthy recipient of our gratitude for the blessings of life but should not be held accountable for the disasters is a transparently disingenuous innovation of the theologians," he said. "All the holy texts and interpretations that contrive ways of getting around the problem read like the fine print in a fraudulent contract – and for the same reason: they are desperate attempts to conceal the implications of the double standard they have invented."
In another camp are conservative religionists who explain natural disasters by blaming those who suffer. Pat Robertson, for one, theologized that the Haitians broke with God. God has broken them. They need to turn back to God.
Robertson has a record of blaming "sinners" for disasters, as he and Jerry Falwell did after Sept. 11, 2001. He is not alone, however.
Henry Blackaby, a favorite Bible teacher of Southern Baptists, claimed the terrorist attacks came because of the sin of Americans. He also said the 2004 tsunami was God's punishment on nations that persecuted Christians.
Such Christian theologians have traveling companions within Islam. An Islamic professor, too, saw the tsunami as God's punishment. "It happened at Christmas, when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion," he said.
A third camp, best known as Camp Calvin, asserts God's complete control and often sounds as if it lacks any empathy for those who suffer.
"Every molecule of matter obeys his [God's] command, and the earthquakes reveal his reign," wrote one Calvinist, who underscored Haiti's heritage of religious syncretism and Catholicism. He emphasized God's perfect judgment of nations.
He added that "the earthquake reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only real message of hope."
Proclaiming God's sovereign control of everything in the midst of agony is a quick answer for those who feel the need to protect God from criticism or doubt. Bashing belief in God is another solution for inexplicable suffering. Blaming the victims for their suffering is an all-too-common human response for some people of faith who think they need to protect God.
These reactive explanations keep the focus off what human rights ought to do.
For those of faith, a better way is to ask what is it that God wants us to do. Faith in action avoids the fruitlessness of the theologically inexplicable, the foolishness of self-righteously faulting others for human suffering and the uselessness of escapism from human responsibility.
When Jesus said that God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45), he underscored the universal love of God, not God's retribution. And Jesus did so in the context of challenging his followers to love those outside their neighborhood, a love by definition that requires tangible action, instead of abstract theologizing.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. This editorial appeared originally on the Washington Post's "On Faith" Web page in a shorter and different version.