Surviving Disaster: Is It Divine Intervention?

By Brittani Hamm and Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, February 23, 2008

As Kristen Fabrizio felt the vibrations preceding the tornado that ripped across the campus of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., on Feb. 5, she clung to her friends, who in turn clung to their faith.

"You can definitely see God's hands if you look at our campus," said Fabrizio, a history major at the Southern Baptist-affiliated school. "No one's supposed to be alive."

And yet many are. Those who made it through the storm thank God for protection. But what about the dozens of people across the South who died in the storms, who weren't so lucky, or blessed? Did God not protect them?

It's the kind of question often raised after a disaster, man-made or otherwise. Was God looking the other way when 32 were killed in a shooting massacre last April at Virginia Tech, or when the seas swallowed more than 200,000 souls in the 2004 tsunami?

Put another way: Does God protect some, but not all?

At Union's devastated campus and across Tennessee, religious scholars and students alike say such a disaster raises more theological questions than answers.

"Sometimes you just have these weather events," said the Rev. Ron Lowery, a United Methodist district superintendent in central Tennessee. "And nobody would wish that upon you, and God would himself not have that come upon us."

Lowery has been dealt a double blow. Two days after the storm, the Rev. Michael Welch of Lafayette United Methodist Church was helping coordinate relief efforts when his car was hit by a truck. Welch and three family members died.

Which prompts another question: Welch was protected from the storm, but not from the oncoming truck? Lowery says he isn't trying to make sense out of the senseless.

"You begin to see there are just circumstances that just come our way," he said. "These things just happen, and it's not by some divine power that's put upon you."

For now, Union students say they are focusing on gratitude, not questions, as they set out to recover.

"We as humans will question why this is happening and why we were the target," said Brittany Howerton, a senior public relations major. "Despite all of that, we have to rest assured that God's plan is best. We are not called to understand things. We are called to trust him."

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the best-selling book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," said he does not believe the tornado was an act of God -- even though insurance companies like to categorize disasters as such.

"It was an act of nature," he said. "Nature is morally blind. Nature can be beautiful but it has no conscience. . . . I find God not in the tornado, but in the many responses to the tornado, whether it's the courage to go on or the resilience to put your life back together or the impulse to help victims."

Kushner, who lived through the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, said he is inspired by the biblical story of the prophet Elijah, who sought God in the wind, in the fire and in an earthquake, but found God in a "still small voice."

"When we ask 'Why did God let this happen?', what I learned from that . . . is God responds not with an explanation but with an agenda," said Kushner, whose most recent book is "Overcoming Life's Disappointments."

"In other words, what you do about it is not make sense of it, but do something to help."

David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, also thinks of the story in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus's disciples asked if a man was born blind because of his sin or the sins of his parents. Jesus responded that "the works of God" would be revealed in him.

"I think we almost always get in trouble when we then attempt to offer theological explanations of what happened to that other person," Gushee said. "I'd rather not speculate on the why, as much as when Christians and others reach out to their neighbors and feed them and rebuild their houses . . . and do all the concrete things that are needed; then God is present."

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