Colorado burning

Yesterday, photos of smoke, ash, and devastation began to fill my Facebook feed.

I have a lot of friends in Colorado Springs.

I heard from one who spent the evening watching the ash descend on his house and praying it wouldn’t light. Another spent the morning watering her roof.

Then came the updates from those forced to evacuate — who don’t yet know whether their homes are still there.

As Christians, the best thing we can say (if we say anything at all) is Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.

Sadly, if the fires had struck any other city, some religious leaders might be tempted to say more.

If this were New Orleans, for example, someone might declare the fire God’s judgment on homosexuals, as John Hagee did when Hurricane Katrina struck.

If this were Port-au-Prince, someone might attribute the victims’ misfortune to a pact their ancestors supposedly made with the devil. That was how Pat Robertson explained the 2010 earthquake that killed over 300,000 in Haiti.

If this were Minneapolis, and there was a gathering of liberal Lutherans in town, someone might proclaim the 15,000-acre conflagration as “God’s gentle but firm warning” to repent, much as John Piper did when a tornado briefly disrupted the ELCA’s national convention taking place in his hometown.

But this is Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family, Compassion International, The Navigators, and a hundred other evangelical ministries. This is the veritable Jerusalem of the Rockies, with THREE Christian radio stations.

So who’s going to stand up and condemn it? Who’s going to claim insight into the divine counsel and tell us why God allowed and/or caused this disaster — and precisely who he’s mad at this time?

Is it Focus on the Family? Has God grown weary of their conflict with those whose values don’t line up with theirs? Is he mad at the entire state of Colorado for voting to ban gay marriage in 2006 — an effort spearheaded by Ted Haggard, a once-prominent Colorado Springs pastor?

Should progressive Christians take this opportunity to do some pontificating of their own?

The answer is, of course, no.

You see, even if you believe God is meticulously sovereign — that he not only allows bad things to happen but determines each and every one of them, it takes a colossal amount of hubris to point the finger at someone else and say, “God brought this disaster to judge YOU.”

Even if you believe God has used calamity to judge people in the past, that doesn’t mean you or I have the authority to say which disasters (if any) are divine judgments today.

“But unless you repent, you will all perish.”

When the tornado hit Minneapolis during the ELCA’s convention in 2009, John Piper took to his blog and quoted Luke 13:1-5 as proof the cyclone represented God’s judgment against the gathering of liberal Lutherans, among others.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

On the basis of this and a few other texts, Piper believes every disaster, natural or manmade, is the judgment of an angry God.

But let’s take a closer look at Luke 13.

Jesus learns that some Galileans were slaughtered in the temple by order of the Roman governor. Galilee and the surrounding area was a tinderbox of Jewish resentment against Roman occupation. (See this post for more about the political climate of first-century Galilee.) It’s more than likely these Galileans were killed in retaliation for some challenge to Pilate’s authority — whether they were the instigators or just “collateral damage.”

Many Jews of Jesus’ day longed to thumb their noses at their Roman oppressors. All they needed was a messiah who would rise up and lead them to a blood-soaked victory.

But when Jesus hears about these martyrs for the cause, he doesn’t mince words. He tells his listeners, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

This is not a general call to repent of just any sin, lest some disaster overtake you. Jesus is warning his listeners to abandon their plans for armed revolt. “Unless you repent of this futile effort to retaliate against your enemies,” he tells his compatriots, “the entire nation will perish.”

Indeed, Jesus’ prediction came true when the temple was razed and Jerusalem destroyed in A.D. 70.

Again, it was not a natural disaster he was talking about in Luke 13. It wasn’t even divine judgment. It was manmade and self-inflicted.

The Bible gives no encouragement to those who interpret every act of human suffering as divine judgment. There’s even one story where three individuals, too smart for their own good, are condemned for doing so.

Rather, we are told simply to “mourn with those who mourn.”

So as Colorado burns, we put our hands over our mouths and say,

Kyrie eleison. 


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