A nine-year-old I know loves weather, the more extreme the better. Together we watch shows about chasing tornadoes, tracking storms, forest fires and other natural disasters.
Naturally we talked about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
“How terrible,” I said. “Nothing good comes from this.”
“Well, not exactly,” the boy said. “One good thing was that Japan got paid back for bombing Pearl Harbor.”
When I asked why he thought this, he said that a friend had told him.
The nine-year-old and his friend aren’t alone in thinking that behind natural disasters there is a human reason. The thought echoed the remark by Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara who said that the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment (tenbatsu) for the country’s sinful ways. “The identity of the Japanese people is greed. The tsunami represents a good opportunity to cleanse this greed, and one we must avail ourselves of. Indeed,” Ishihara concluded, “I think this is divine punishment.”
Likewise, Pat Robertson said that the Haitian earthquake and Hurricane Katrina were acts of divine punishment for America’s sinful ways. Pope Benedict XVI’s’s appointment, Gerhard Wagner, the auxiliary bishop in Linz, Austria, also says that the hurricane was God’s punishment for the sexual excesses in New Orleans. And Ovadia Yosef, the former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel concurs about the hurricane being divine punishment but for a different transgression: Katrina was God’s punishment for America’s role in forcing Israel to give up the Gaza Strip. It gets even worse. Amongst some Chasidic groups, the Holocaust is understood as God’s retribution for Zionism (yes, this from an Orthodox Jewish group).
Divine punishment is indiscriminate. It takes infants and children, and kills the good, the pious and devout, as well as the vile, all in one fell swoop. It is difficult to see the moral lesson in this. For me, I find it impossible to accept as a divine intervention by a loving, caring and compassionate god or gods.
Rather I accept that Nature for what it is: a force that doesn’t have a mind or will and therefore doesn’t have compassion. Nature is indifferent to the fate of humanity. We have to care for it; it doesn’t give a wit about us.
There is evil that is Nature’s— the calamities and catastrophes of storms and plagues, falling objects and microbes that reach into the lives of the innocent and guilty, the young and old. I accept the world of chance and no one is more immune to its rumblings and strikes than the next because they are more virtuous than their neighbors.
But there is another kind of evil, the human kind, where terrible things are done by people to others for no good reason. This takes us into the arena of ethics, where we judge each others’ behavior, make assessments and evaluations, proclaim one thing better than another, other things less acceptable or desirable or not acceptable at all, All of this working out between human beings how to make a better life collectively.
Those who proclaim divine retribution when children drown or people experience painful illnesses or hideous deaths are compounding the pain already felt by those struck by calamities. Their views of divine retribution are more than callous; they are part of the immorality that they otherwise decry.