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A Prayer for the Victims of Hurricane Katrina

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September 20, 2005

Why Did it Happen?
by Jon M. Sweeney

That’s the basic question, isn’t it? That’s the question that most of us are trying to answer, and we come at our answers from very different perspectives.

Sometimes we create over-arching explanations that encompass history, theology, science, culture, and who-knows-what-else. We believe that there must be an answer “out there” to why disasters happen, and we believe that we may be able to “find” it, eventually. We just have to look hard enough, think hard enough, or ask smart enough people.

Then, at other times, over-arching explanations are actually intended to further our pre-existing agendas. For example, some members of the far right-wing of Christian fundamentalism are claiming Katrina as an act of God in response to their usual punching bags: gays and abortions. One group, RepentAmerica.com, sent out a press release on August 31 saying that Katrina’s devastation was God’s judgment on gay pride in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. They proclaimed: “this act of God destroyed a wicked city.” As evidence, they cite that the first week of September was supposed to have been a time when thousands of revelers flocked to New Orleans for the “Southern Decadence” festival – obviously, now cancelled.

Other, similar groups believe it can be demonstrated that God used Katrina to punish the abortion clinics in New Orleans. They point to satellite photographs of the devastation taken from space and then sickly indicate how the images of flooding resemble the outline of an unborn fetus approaching the third trimester.

On the other hand, there are the hopeless explanations that offer Katrina as proof that the universe is actually a cold place without any god whatsoever. American Atheists, the U.S.’s largest organization lobbying for the complete separation of church and state, has said in recent days: “New Orleans is perhaps a caution about life in general on this delicate planet we call Earth; nature, to be controlled and commanded, must also be obeyed. And in times of calamity, we can forget the gods. All we have is each other.”

And so I asked some clergy and counselors: Why do we construct these meta-theories for natural disasters? Do they simply help us cope? Are they necessary? What’s the alternative for us, as we try to understand why Katrina happened?

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco says: “Anyone over four years old knows that terrible and unforseeable things happen, and any theory that lessens human responsibility is just sick theology. Or, if you insist on using what I would call degenerate, retributive theism [such as that used in the press release by RepentAmerica], then you must ask yourself why Boston and San Francisco, and for other reasons, Las Vegas and Atlantic City—also centers of disbelief—were spared, while the heart of the Bible belt was ravaged.”

When I asked Rabbi Kushner why we construct meta-theories to try and answer “Why?”, he offered: “People who have survived what, by any reasonable standard, is a senseless tragedy, are often drawn by a stubborn insistence to learn something from it and then teach it to anyone who wants to listen.”

The Reverend Mary Haddad, senior associate rector at St. Bart’s Church in midtown Manhattan, offered different answers. “My short answer,” she said, “is that I have no idea why disasters happen.” Not what you usually hear from clergy.

She went on: “A meteorologist can give a scientific answer, and experts on the environment can answer why the levee broke, a crisis that was long anticipated, making Hurricane Katrina both a natural disaster and a not-so-natural disaster, one in which a colossal amount of damage was actually preventable. So, if you can't live with that for which there is no answer – what we might call the inexplicable or mystery – then you make up an answer. In that sense, meta-theories are necessary in providing answers where there are none. Perhaps they are comforting in the short term but, ultimately, meta-theories say more about our needs to have God fit our agendas than they do about God.”

Haddad believes that whereas grand theories for “why did it happen?” will disappoint us, our human responses to the mystery left in disaster’s wake will not.

She explains: “Ask yourself: ‘How can I respond to suffering, either my own or someone else’s? Where and how can I experience God’s presence in the healing from suffering? The over-arching meta-narrative of scripture invites us to explore these questions and answers in community, never in isolation from the text, the tradition or the people asking and answering them.

“Both as a human being and a priest, I feel fairly qualified to reflect on these questions. My father died many years ago in a tornado. I still can’t tell you why that happened, but I can tell you that my ache to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless situation led me, ultimately, to fill the void with God, who didn’t stop the rain but who eventually led me to a faith-filled community who nurtured me in life-giving ways. No meta-theory or interpretation could have brought me there.”

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney

Jon Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. His new book is a memoir, BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN: SURPRISING GIFTS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD.
More by Jon Sweeney.

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