I had to resist rubbing my hands together in a weak moment of delighted schadenfreude when I read that Tony Perkins — rabid right-wing, anti-gay leader of the Family Research Council — lost his house this past week in the floods of Louisiana. The same guy who preached that natural disasters were God’s vengeance on America for tolerating gays, abortion … and whatever in-vogue sin of the day is tolerated in our society. Maybe you’re not so blessed, so privileged as you think.
“Karma,” some of my friends were saying. “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you,” someone quoted Jesus. “You reap what you sow.” All just different ways of saying the same thing: that there is some kind of cosmic reward and retribution system built into the fabric of our existence.
Okay, Tony Perkins is just one of the thousands effected by the floods. A dozen people died and 40,000 homes were destroyed in southern Louisiana this week. It would be tragic to overlook the devastating effects of nature on so many people, just so we can grab a few seconds of delight in the misfortune of one of our enemies. Surely karma is also concerned with the plight of the innocent. God takes no pleasure in the suffering of others. So maybe let’s not be so quick to get happy over the news.
Otherwise, we’re just as guilty — and mistaken — as those same people who’ve blamed other tragedies on us, on our “sins” and grievances against a holy God.
Jesus never gloated when his opponents were humbled. He never threw a stone, even at those who seemingly deserved it. And when people came to him wanting to point out the sinfulness of those who died when a tower in Siloam fell on them, or when a Roman governor slaughtered a group of people in the temple, Jesus rebuked them harshly. “They were no greater sinners than you — so if that’s the case, you’d better watch out for what’s coming your way” (Luke 13). That’s a paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it. God doesn’t dole out to us what we “deserve.” In fact, speaking of himself, giving himself a name, God declares, “this is who I am: the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …” (Exodus 34).
But enough sermonizing. My fleeting moment of hubris over wanting to rub Tony Perkins’ face in it, in reality, was quickly shouted down by my own conscience. This is not who we are — or how God works. We’re better than this. We’re called to be better than this. To look upon even our enemies with compassion. And not be so quick to point the finger of judgment. Especially in moments of tragedy.
My hope (and prayer) is that Tony Perkins, and those who follow him, will take this moment and rethink their theology. I hope real life will temper their theories, give them a reason to weigh the ugliness, the coldness and inhumaneness of this aspect of their beliefs. Good theology is born out of life experience. It can’t be just academic or based on a simple, literalistic reading of a holy text. That way leads to legalism, to hard-heartedness, to death. It dishonors “the compassionate and gracious God” it claims to reflect. Bad stuff happens to good (and bad) people. That’s not an “act of God.” God’s hand actually moves through us when we do something to help each other.
This wasn’t a shining moment for me either. This harsh moment of history when people are suffering is making me pause and rethink my own “gut reactions.” It’s a cold look in the mirror of my soul. I’m in need of some personal transformation as much as the Family Research Council is in need of some theological transformation.
May the tender, correcting voice of God’s Spirit work in us all. And then may we move past our moments of introspection and theologizing to actually step up and help take care of those impacted by these so-called “acts of God.”
Ways to help & donate:
Salvation Army’s Gulf Coast fund – volunteer or donate to help
Operation Blessing relief fund – providing hot meals and helping in recovery
Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans & Acadiana – distributing food, water, and supplies to flood victims
photo credit: Tony Perkins’ home after the flooding. Taken from Tony Perkins’ Facebook page.
STEPHEN SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.