By Eugene C. Scott
Natural disasters are nothing new. Unfortunately.
In 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried two cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the Yellow River in China flooded several times killing 3-5 million people. Just last week we watched in horror the Japan earthquake and tsunami that was so different from last year’s devastating earthquake in Haiti–both causing unimaginable suffering that made us forget Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Tsunami.
It has been heartening to see the world respond to these latest disasters with aid, prayers, workers, and money.
Disheartening, though, has been our need to blame someone or something for these disasters, as if affixing blame will ease the suffering, or even–realistically–prevent another disaster.
This blame game is nothing new either.
Blame. Some Democrats blamed George W. Bush for Hurricane Katrina. Some Republicans in turn blamed Democrats. Pat Robertson moved up the food chain and fingered God, saying God possibly allowed the disaster in response to America’s abortion policy. Meanwhile people suffered. And none of this blaming deterred the hurricane that wrecked Haiti. Now some are saying President Obama is not responding to japan fast enough.
As I said above, this blame game is not new. And God receives most of it. Or rather, we blame bad people–so-called (such as George Bush or Barak Obama or whomever the blamer sees as sinful) for making God (or the gods, or the scientific equivalent) angry.
Pliny, a seventeen or eighteen year-old Roman citizen, who witnessed Mount Vesuvius explode and devour Pompeii and all her people, including his uncle, wrote, “Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was the one last unending night for the world.”
In the Bible this assigning of guilt was the response Job’s three friends had to his suffering as well.
Bildad actually has the gall to say, “When your children sinned against him [God], he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.”
Can you imagine saying such a calloused thing to a man who just had lost seven of his children to murder? Unfortunately people often do, maybe not so boldly. Our propensity for blame is as calloused and continues the disastrous destruction, whether personal or global. What blame really does is distance us from the suffering. If we can assign fault, maybe we will escape the next go round of disaster or at least we don’t have to feel what those suffering are feeling.
But Job does not flinch or fire back: “Indeed, I know that this is true,” he replies. Humans are sinful and we cause a great deal of our own suffering. We are greedy and rob and steal and lie. There is plenty of guilt to go round.
“But how can a mortal be righteous before God?” Job counters. “He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble.”
This is not Job blaming, but rather admitting that we often deserve disaster and God has the right to visit it on us.
Somehow, however, Job knows there is more to his suffering, and suffering in general, than simple cause and effect. Job has seen good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. He understands that sometimes the good things that happen to bad people may not really turn out to be that good. And likewise the bad things that happen to good people may not end bad.
Job realizes better than the blamers that there is a mystery in suffering: the holy and beautiful and the terrible and painful twisting and turning together like a fine rope. Job doesn’t want to blame God, or himself, for his suffering. Nor does he even seem to want to end it. Job simply wants to talk to God about it.
This is honesty, authenticity, and it opens the doors to heaven. Blame is dishonest, even if someone appears responsible. I am not arguing against taking personal or corporate responsibility for our faults. Rather finding fault in others is a dodge that we hope lets us, the blamers, off the hook to find and give real hope in suffering.
In the end, God gives Job his audience because Job has looked beneath the surface and is willing to go deeper for answers, including accepting responsibility.
“My ears have heard you but now my eyes have seen you,” Job tells God. Here Job may be describing that illusive movement of truth from the head to the heart. He gets it, we might say. Whatever this phrase means, Job seems to have moved to a profound understanding of God, himself, and life. Had he stayed in the shallow waters of blame, I believe he would have never drowned in the deep truth and beauty of God’s purpose for his unimaginable suffering. And neither will we.
Let’s pray for and work for and give to the suffering people of Japan. But let’s not waste our precious energy laying blame for this tragedy.
P.S. I wrote last year in response to the Haiti disaster and reworked it some as I have prayed and thought about this latest tragedy.
Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO.
By Eugene C. Scott