No sooner had news of the terrible devastation to New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast confronted the
nation than Americans began generously contributing to relief efforts in order to ease the pain and suffering of victims.
Record sums of money have been raised by both religious and secular charities. Tens of millions, whatever their opinions
in respect to religion felt and expressed a genuine sympathy with those who bore the brunt of this natural disaster.
And it's true ... in times of calamity, often "the best" of what renders us human — our ability to
sympathize with the plight of others, to muster within ourselves the virtues of generosity, charity, empathy and a willingness
to help—asserts itself. In the absence of gods and supernatural beliefs,
there is compelling evidence to suggest that such traits provide a distinctive survival or evolutionary advantage, and potentially
endow human beings with something that we should agree is good and worth cultivating. Religious people can put aside doctrines
and biases, even if they sense that mutual aid to fellow human beings is the will of a deity, or a simple human virtue.
But not all agree on this sort of open-ended, unconditional benevolence.
One story playing out against the background of the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina is the "dark side" of organized
religion, especially its image as the vanguard of "Armies of Compassion"—Bush administration terminology for the federal
faith-based initiative. Some Christian groups see a veiled, eschatological
message in the havoc that befell New Orleans. For them, the Big Easy has
been a symbol of licentiousness, paganism and Bacchanalian vice. Others, including some Orthodox Jews and Islamists, consider
the havoc of Hurricane Katrina a different sort of message, punishment for perceived wrongs by the United States. In all of these views, what is to most of us a "natural" disaster is camouflage for an event with
deeper and more supernatural significance. Victims are either sacrificial flotsam,
or evil-doers receiving their just comeuppance. We might call this view of a vindictive, cranky deity lashing out at those
who disobey various commandments as "Vengeance Theology."
Vengeance and Meteors
Although he boasts a profile charitable outreach known as Operation Blessing, televangelist Pat Robertson
is probably the most well known promoter of Vengeance Theology. Like many
premillenialist Christians, he considers everything from political events to natural catastrophes as "signs and wonders" of
a coming apocalypse when Christ will return to Earth to establish a 1,000 year reign.
Not all premillenialists agree on the exact sequence of events in this eschatological drama; but many would concur
with Robertson's claim that the "last days" are upon us, and divine displeasure with human behavior has grown to significant
This accounts for Robertson's almost obsessive coverage and commentary on his "700 Club" program about
tornados, floods and other apocalyptic weather events as well as political dislocations, wars, epidemics and other calamities. When a hurricane threatened Florida—a frequent occurrence—Robertson warned
that it may be indicative of God's displeasure with the City of Orlando and The Walt Disney Company who were sponsoring a
gay pride festival. Divine vengeance, warned Robertson, could occur in
any number of ways, from the looming hurricane to "maybe a meteor."
Another promoter of "Vengeance Theology" is a Christian outreach known as Repent America (http://www.repentamerica.com
on the internet). The group defines its mission to be "calling a nation in rebellion toward God to repentance." And like Pastor Robertson, much of the message from Repent America focuses on gay people. In a statement posted on its web site, the group boasted, "Just days before 'Southern Decadence,'
an annual homosexual celebration attracting tens of thousands of people to the French Quarters (sic) section of New Orleans,
Hurricane Katrina destroys the city."
The posting noted that three New Orleans mayors had issued official proclamations welcoming visitors to
Rev. Michael Marcavage, spokesperson and director for Repent America added, "Although the loss of lives
is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city." Marcavage cited other events as well which presumably justified
Divine Wrath including the "Girls Gone Wild" parties, proof that New Orleans "was a city that had its doors wide open to the
public celebration of sin..." With the death toll rising steadily as evidence
that Katrina had taken the lives of children, the elderly, poor people and others, Marcavage warned: "May this act of God
cause all to think about what we tolerate in our city limits, and bring us trembling before the throne of Almighty God."
Another entry in the Repent America web site discussed "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Terms like
"wicked" pepper the essay, along with dire warnings: "There is no want
of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men's hands
cannot be strong when God rises up." God, we are assured, has "many miserable
creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath... The wrath of God burns against
them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive
them; the flames do now rage and glow..."
Like many fundamentalist web sites, Repent America focuses on the worst aspects of tragic events, and in
the case of Hurricane Katrina finds evil even outside the city limits of New Orleans. Only one of the hundreds of media wire
service reports flowing out of the disaster zone is quoted, an AP dispatch headlined: "New Orleans in Anarchy with Fights,
Rapes." There was nothing about the enormous rescue and clean-up operation that soon unfolded. Another part of the site, "A Call to Action" complains about a marker from the Pennsylvania Historical
and Museum Commission honoring the legacy of Gay Rights.
More Common Than Thought?
It might be argued by some, including religious "liberals" who have a superficially more enlightened theology,
that such mean-spirited beliefs represent a fringe of American Christianity. This
may indeed be the case, but it might also be a thriving "fringe" belief more popular than first thought. In respect to the New Orleans disaster, there are indications that clergy in the immediate region
and elsewhere may well agree with some of the sentiments expressed by Repent America, and have their own variants of "Vengeance
Theology." Ford Vox of the Universist Movement — a nonbeliever group with a presence in the disaster region —
used its charitable arm, "Hands on Humanity," to bring supplies and other needed relief to those in Alabama who were victimized
by Katrina. Vox and his organization also conducted a survey of sermons
given by clergy and found "a disturbing trend" including "Dark Ages theology." "A
variety of mainstream Christian voices ranging from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to the Archdiocese of New Orleans
are united in the belief that Hurricane Katrina was the will of God," noted Mr. Vox.
Dean Russell Moore of Southern Seminary, for instance, linked Katrina with God's curse in the Old Testament
tale of the Garden of Eden along with the apocalyptic prophesies of the Book of Revelation (a favorite source for "Vengeance
Theology" devotees and other who see current events as harbingers of the coming "End of Days.") "Nothing unclean will ever enter (Heaven)," Moore warned. "The hope is for Biloxi, Miss., and all of the
created universe to be redeemed and restored in Christ. There will come a day when the curse is reversed, and the Gulf Coast
along with the entire cosmos fully reflects the glory of a resurrected Messiah.
I'm convinced that God is going to purify us through this."
Vox also found a sermon by a minister of a Reformed Baptist Church in Michigan. The preacher told his congregation, "I believe that there is a message from God brought to light in every
dark providence." Hurricane Katrina and its havoc, he said, represented
"the blast of God's judgment against sin" and were "birth pangs about the arrival of the final ultimate birth and letting
out of the wrath of God."
Rev. Chris Hodges of the Church of the Highland in Birmingham, Alabama was blunter about the eschatological
meaning of Hurricane Katrina. "If there's ever been a city that's needed
to be swept clean of the sin and the wickedness it's New Orleans," preached Pastor Hodges. "And it's those gambling casinos
along the gulf coast. And I'll tell ya', I think there's a shakin' goin' on that God's gonna use to bring us a new day. I'm
praying for revival, and I'm encouraging you the church — lift up your heads, don't be discouraged, this is our
final hour. This is what Christians do best.
Other ministers surveyed by Vox referred to God as "ruler of the storm" and portrayed Hurricane Katrina
as punishment for not obeying the Lord. Several used the term "wicked" when referring
to New Orleans. And Rev. Tim Bourgeois of the Tree of Life Christian Church in California declared that the storm was not
the result of events in the physical world ("high pressure area in the upper atmosphere and suddenly this wind just randomly,
naturally occurs") but is rather "God's word at work" and a form of "judgment." "Those
that are still alive have been spared by God's mercy," said Bourgeois, "and Christians needs to take this opportunity to convert
Not Just Gays, Girls & Gamblers "Gone Wild"
A wide spectrum of claims has emerged after Katrina which sees semiotic meaning in what is otherwise a
complex natural catastrophe affecting human beings. Debra Caldwell of the
beliefnet.com site noted, "Katrina has crystallized people's fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar
to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago."
One New Orleans resident, Bridgett Magee, did not focus on "gays, girls, and gamblers" as the reason for
the hurricane, but rather saw Katrina in the context of developments in the Middle East "as a direct 'coming back on us' (for)
what we did to Israel: a home for a home."
contributor to the "Jerusalem Newswire" and lives near Lake Pontchartrain. She
told the publication that while she had evacuated her elderly mother and sister from the area as Hurricane Katrina approached,
she remained behind and asked God "to pitch His tent of protection over my home." Magee
has visited over 100 churches throughout the New Orleans region hoping to host speakers who defend Israel's role in unfolding
Another website contributor described the storm as "the fist of God."
Still others consider the storm punishment not so much for sexual excess but rather economic consumption and materialism.
Stephen O'Leary of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California noted, "God's got a two-fer
here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side
it's sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side, it's conspicuous consumption and Hummers."
Fundamentalists Abroad Sound Off on Katrina
Christians have not been the only religious fundamentalists venting their apocalyptic beliefs concerning
A senior rabbi in Israel, Shas Party leader Ovadia Yosef used the occasion of his weekly sermon to declare
that the storm was "God's retribution" on America for supporting the latest phase of the Middle East peace process.
Shas is the largest Orthodox Jewish fundamentalist political party in Israel.
Yosef told worshippers that President Bush "perpetrated the expulsion (of Jews from Gaza) and that "Now
everyone is mad at him. This is his punishment for what he did... and everyone
else who did as he told them, their time will come, too."
Rabbi Yosef was referring to the forced evacuations carried out the Israeli government of 9,500 residents
from the community of Gush Katif, and four other settlements. A story carried
on the WorldNetDaily.com site which blends conservative and religious right politics with apocalyptic fringe teachings, claimed:
"Residents were forced from their homes by Israeli troops, some dragged away kicking and screaming and placed on buses that
took them from the area. The majority of former Katif residents are homeless
while the Israeli government struggles to find permanent housing solutions."
Yosef's bizarre interpretation linking the events in New Orleans with the explosive developments in Gaza
drew a quick reaction from others in Israel, including Knesset Member Ronnie Brizon from the progressive Shinui Party.
"What, God is cross-eyed," said Mr. Brizon. "He meets out punishments at the wrong place? We're sick and
tired of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's primitive worldview."
Yosef is no stranger to controversy. He reportedly predicted
that God would murder "the evil one" who engineered the Gaza withdrawal, a clear reference to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "He also once called on the Israeli army to 'joyfully' annihilate Arabs with
rockets, and prompted calls for his resignation in 2000 when he stated the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust died because
they were reincarnations of sinners in previous generations."
Bizarre as these statements are, WorldNetDaily.com seemed equally credulous in its 9/8/05 story which attempted
to draw "parallels" between the events in New Orleans and the developments in Gaza.
The story saw potential significance in the fact that "Gaza's Jewish communities were located in Israel's southern
coastal region; America's southern coastal region now lies in ruins."
Also: "Many residents of Jewish Gaza climbed to their rooftops to escape the threat of expulsion, while
residents of the Gulf Coast climbed on their own rooftops to protect themselves from the rising waters. Jewish Gaza homes described as beautiful and charming were demolished last week by Israel's military. Once beautiful homes in New Orleans now lie in ruins."
Op-Ed writer Stan Goodenough was fixated by such superficial similarities. "Is this some sort of bizarre coincidence?" he asked readers.
"Not for those who believe in the God of the Bible and the immutability of His World.
What America is about to experience is the lifting of God's hand of protection, the implementation of His judgment
on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel."
Not to be outdone by other religious fundamentalist, Islamist web sites and publications were quick to
blame Katrina as an instrument of Divine Wrath, and echoed much of the rhetoric of Christian/Jewish "Vengeance Theologians."
Agence France Presse (AFP) quoted one Muslim website that declared, "Katrina, a soldier sent by God to
fight on our side ... the soldier Katrina joins us to fight against America."
Another praised "Allahu akbar (God is greatest), Soldiers of God, Hurricane Katrina demolishes America!"
In Kuwait, a country "liberated" in the 1990 Gulf War, similar views were espoused in the country's press. Mohammad Yussef al-Mlaifi, head of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowment's research
center said, "When the satellite channels reported on the scope of the terrifying destruction in America caused by this
hurricane, I was reminded of the words of (the Prophet Mohammad): 'The
wind sends torment to one group of people, and sends mercy to others.'"
"I do not think—and only Allah knows—that this wind, which completely wiped out American cities
in these days, is a wind of mercy and blessing," Mlaifi admonished. "It is almost certain that this is a wind of torment
and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire. But how strange it
is that after all of the tremendous American achievements for the sake of humanity, these mighty winds come and evilly rip
America's cities to shreds? Have the storms joined the al-Qaeda terrorist organizations."
AFP noted that "Many bloggers drew parallels between the destruction caused by the storm and that brought
by U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq..."
Possible Motivations for "Vengeance Theology"
Why, one might ask, would an all-benevolent deity (assuming He, She, It existed) engage in such wholesale
and bloodthirsty vengeance against groups and individuals who may stray from the narrow confines of doctrinal religion? Where is mercy, selectivity, empathy, compassion, even a sense of moral proportion?
Such a question is surely theological. It may be more
prudent, then, to inquire why some human beings embrace this "Vengeance theology," and what the sub-text message of this stern,
compassionless view of the world might be.
In the case of New Orleans, much of the rhetoric focuses on homosexuality, a bette noir for the
modern religious right in America and other countries where "culture war" issues are playing out. More specifically, though,
is the fact that New Orleans is, in a very real sense, a symbol (more so in some respects than say, New York or Los Angeles)
of practices and virtues that chafe the sensibilities and doctrines of many "fundamentalists." While it is a city rooted
in a rich, complex history, it is also modern (post-modern), cosmopolitan in its ethnic composition, tolerant in its acceptance
of diverse groups, and Bacchanalian with its many festivals, parades and ritualized celebrations. There is a hint of modern "paganism" here, wild and sexually charged abandonment (from those "wild" girls
to flamboyant gays and everything/everyone in between!), formalized suspension of common rules of restraint, and latitudinous
"rituals of misrule" such as the Mardi Gras. It is also an urban melting pot
of different ethnic strains, languages and cultural practices, a social arrangement anchored on values such as tolerance,
creativity and community. When asked by reporters if he thought the city should be saved or abandoned, one resident defended
his community and noted its value as "the only place you can go in the United States which seems like it is isn't totally
in the United States."
"Vengeance Theology" provides an imposing rationale for those fundamentalists of any stripe discontent
with these cosmopolitan values. It looks inward, and back in time for its doctrinal foundation, giving its practitioners
a sense that they hold firm to absolute teachings and unquestionable values. By doing so, it also creates an "us versus them"
mindset where the "wicked" and sinful offenders must suffer god's wrath. The
damned and depraved stand contrasted with the purified and judgmental believer.
Finally, those who embrace "Vengeance Theology" are relieved of the requirement to exercise virtues such
as compassion for others (who may be different) and tolerance for different opinions, lifestyles and voluntary practices.
They may claim to "hate the sin and love the sinner," but that declaration rings hollow against the devastation, suffering
and sheer violence inflicted upon those same "sinners"—not to mention innocent victims presumably by the "fist of God,"
Allah or some other supernatural being. This is a cold, harshly judgmental and
inhumane theology, much in conflict with enlightened values emphasizing our common humanity, our need to reach out in
times of crisis, and the stark fact that in this universe, "all we have is each other." *