This is the second post in this mini series of Reflecting on the Newtown Tragedy at Christmastime.
This week in response to the Newtown tragedy, James Dobson said on his Family Radio program:
“Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I’m not talking politically, I’m not talking about the result of the Nov. 6 election. I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God, I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me, and we have killed 54 million babies, and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.”
“And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.”
Regarded as a religious leader by some, there’s Mike Huckabee’s comments then his clarification and then of course Fred Phelps who regards himself as a religious leader and who many like myself see him as a spiteful individual masking his agenda of hate under the guise of religion and masking it poorly quite frankly.
Why do these men say such things during such times? They only add more pain. Now those like Phelps intend to add to the pain (and I’ll direct the remainder of the post towards Dobson and Huckabee) but a guy like Dobson is supposed to be someone that offers the peace of God as opposed to speaking on behalf of God in such a insensitive, unloving manner. Now mind you, at this point in my life, I have no expectations for any of them and live most of my life apart from their agendas, influence, and opinions. The trouble is that supposedly we believe in the same God. More and more I wonder about the accuracy of that assumption.
One says he is for the family but seems to leverage that platform more for the sake of power and funding more than the actual family. Seriously it seems to me that Dr. Phil has done more for the families of America than Dobson and I am not a big fan of Dr. Phil either. Further, I have a severe distrust of any major personality on any major news network so Anderson Cooper, Bill O’Reily, Sean Hannity, the guy who won Trump’s Apprentice and now has his own show on CNN (What??) and my mistrust includes Mike Huckabee. The goal of news networks is not simply to inform the viewer but to keep them watching in order to support the advertisers. So it’s difficult for me to take any of these voices too seriously.
But what I do take seriously is how their words inform others. Among the results of our tragedies is the expression of such poor theology. As if God would actually possess someone to violently and dramatically take the lives of the innocent in order to accomplish two virtually unrelated objectives. To punish the one sin that particular individual loathes (like homosexuality) and second, to call the nation to repentance. I wholeheartedly believe that God does not work like this. In fact, until He declares this is action, I could easily make the case that such claims are blasphemous.
Not only is it bad theology but it’s also offensive to many including the families of the victims and to others who believe in God. Let me be clear here – these statements made by those like Dobson and Huckabee is bad theology based on half-truths and this is offensive to God. Will the culture look different if millions of people do not live their lives believing or devout in their faith in God? Yes, the culture will look different than the opposite of that statement. But does God send 20 year olds to shoot up elementary schools? No and let me unpack that.
One it’s such a poor view of God. As if God and His angels are in a brainstorming meeting and somebody yells, “I got it! Someone does this terrible act and people will be so depressed that they’ll come back to church.”
To which another celestial objects, “Hey, that seems like such a waste of life.”
Another counters, “Those people are dying all the time, what’s the difference, we still got 7 billion left to work with.”
“What about a natural disaster?” someone yells.
“Naahh, they’re not as effective as they used to be, we need to space them out …”
I’ve never been to heaven and I like to think that I’m going but this is not the one I’m entering nor is it the one that God inhabits. The above described is a caricature of bad theology of those who say things like that, this is what happens when you kick God out of schools and so forth …
Second, make no mistake, God is indeed grieved by our individual and collective sinfulness. Not because He’s a control freak but because our moral failures push us further away from Him and from each other which interestingly enough is the direct opposite of what Jesus gives as the greatest command, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, strength and love your neighbor as yourself” (a paraphrase of Mark 12:30-31).
Why is God so grieved by only the sins that the those like Dobson find so reprehensible?. Why isn’t God more grieved (or just as grieved) by human trafficking or murder or adultery or corruption or greed or gluttony? How does God feel about pastor sex scandals and financial embezzlement scams and countless other failures within the Church? I’m always suspicious (and therefore dismissive) of any pastor/leader/personality who calls out the sins/failures his/her “support base” is already against. Usually this personality will say, “I was being prophetic and calling out what the wrong that I see.” The prophets of the Old Testament called out the sins of their own tribe, their own spiritual community, not the failures of others. In fact, this post is more prophetic than what Dobson and Huckabee are saying. (By the way, there’s an interesting exception to all of this with Jonah, whom is called by God to preach to the Assyrians who did not know the God of Israel. Upon hearing the redemptive message of Yahweh, King Sennacherib orders the nation to fast, pray and repent. The difference is that this was an act of God not Jonah. If you read the story, Jonah doesn’t even want to go to Nineveh, hence the famous story of him running the opposite direction and being swallowed by the whale and spit up after he repents. Pretty different from what Dobson is doing I’d say.)
Third, Almost every time I say something like this, someone will attempt to correct me by saying, “Actually Pastor, no one is innocent.” They slide your title in to remind you that you should know better. I used to roll my eyes at such attempted rebukes but I was passing up an opportunity to offer a better understanding of what innocence actually is. (There was the time that I responded to a friend with “OK great, well if no one is actually innocent I guess we don’t have to worry about the abortion debate any more.” To which he calmly chuckled understanding the intended hyperbole. I don’t take his friendship for granted). But now whenever possible, I try to explain the context of what we mean by innocent lives in the civilian sense and what we mean in the soteriological. In some way, this individual is only expressing the bad theology they’ve picked up along the way.
But fourth and lastly, what I hear most is “Well, God punished Israel in the Old Testament, it seems biblical that he’s punishing America now.” Not only is this bad theology, it’s also incorrect. In short, God had a set of covenants with Israel but for the sake of simplicity, I’m referring mainly to the Abrahamic Covenant. As Jesus entered the Biblical Narrative, in essence he claims he is the fulfillment of the new covenant and the New Testament follows suit. Meaning the New Covenant invites everyone to be part of God’s people, the community of God, we call this the Church. Here’s what I’m getting at – You can comb the pages of history of the United States, there is no American Covenant. God does not make a covenant with George Washington nor does He renew it with Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan. We simply cannot apply the punishments Israel experienced like being conquered by the Babylonians, exiled and later occupied by the Romans. It’s completely different and to state that it’s the same is bad theology.
On the other hand, the Christmas Story is good and beautiful theology. It’s the one that says, God grieved by the evil, pain and death in the world becomes one of us, comes near, calls us to repentance and offers redemption, hope, and love through the life and resurrection of Jesus. That’s what religious leaders should be saying, especially during times of tragedy near Christmastime.
This has been a longer post than usual, but I think it’s one of the more needed ones I’ve written in a while. Please consider sharing it with those who repeat or believe what the Dobsons and Huckabees are saying. At best, it will confront what I consider to be bad theology. But second, it will hopefully encourage needed conversation.
Now, what we do with those like Fred Phelps? That post soon.