THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 135
What sort of God?
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The Bishop of Carlisle was reported recently as having made some comments about how the passing of the Civil Partnership Act by Parliament had been the cause of flooding in England. He was reported as saying that he believed that the floods that have recently devastated swathes of country are God’s judgement on the immorality and greed of modern society. A few days later his spokesman said that the Bishop had been misquoted. In the meantime there were repercussions all around the world press as people disagreed with the idea that God sends punishments like that. I guess the Bishop will be even more careful about what he says in future!
However there are people who really do think that recent laws have undermined marriage. Some think that the introduction of pro-gay legislation has provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless. It may seem absurd to even suggest this - but it appears to be a view held by not a few, including some Christians.
In this respect one recalls the affair at York Minster. Some years ago the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev David Jenkins, made some remarks about the resurrection that might have been thought provocative by some Christians. A short time afterwards a bolt of lightening hit the South Transept of York Minster and caused a localised fire. Some said that God was expressing his disagreement with the Bishop’s views.
In much the same vein there was a smear of condemnation that spread through some parts of the Christian Church several decades ago when AIDS was said by some to be God’s punishment on gay people and it was named the gay plague by the newspapers,
All such attitudes towards gay people are clearly pure homophobia. The people with such attitudes think they are being loyal to their picture of God in their assessment - but what their attitude reveals is that they will grasp anything with which to denigrate and traduce homosexuality.
Lets examine what is happening in these cases, because what is being said can very easily be confused with another much more acceptable line of thinking - one that is generally seen as a fact of life. It is surely difficult to disagree with the idea that actions have consequences. In biblical language that is that you reap what you sow. If society is improvident with its resources, then it may well have to face a time when it has to do without. If society pours filthy black smoke into the atmosphere, eventually we have a carbon dioxide problem in the world. Such statements are accepted universally. It can be expressed in a religious way by saying that society will inevitably suffer a judgement as a result of its wrong actions.
But what these people are saying is not that. It is subtly different. They are saying that because society has acted in a way that they think is immoral, God is taking specific action to punish society. It is a ‘judgement of God’.
I think that to say that the floods are not just a result of natural forces or of lack of respect for the planet but are also a judgement by God on society’s moral decadence is going a step too far. A large step too far. In fact, a gigantic step too far! For what sort of God is it who sends strife and pestilence on human beings (not to mention the rest of creation!) because he is miffed at some law that they have passed? Is that the God we see exemplified by Jesus in the gospels?
Such an action is, without doubt, typical of the way the God was seen by the people of the Old Testament. There are numerous examples in the Old Testament where God rained down fire and brimstone on mortals who had offended him: think Sodom and Gomorrah. But surely that is not how God is seen in the New Testament? Did we not get a revelation of what God was like from Jesus? Did we not learn from his teachings, his miracles, his death and resurrection?
The sayings of Jesus and - even more important - the spirit of Jesus as shown by what he taught and how he lived throughout his short life, all point away from any interpretation of God as being a vindictive, angry and judgemental God as depicted in parts of the Old Testament. Surely we have grown beyond believing in a God who takes punitive action on either individuals or communities in this way? The general tenor and spirit of the New Testament is perhaps more important in this respect than individual verses. The reported sayings in the gospels had to pass through the minds of various disciples before they were written down, and are obviously tinged with the outlook and views of those disciples. Those who were Jews carried a lot of Jewish baggage and saw (and remembered) Jesus through their preconceived ideas and attitudes. But when we look at the whole tenor of the writings in the New Testament we see how far removed it is from the outlook expressed by some writers in the Old Testament, where we see judgemental and retributive attitudes towards those with whom they disagreed.
Of course this approach may upset those who are of a fundamentalist leaning for it seems to them to be ‘picking and choosing’ from the bible what we believe. They hold to a literally ‘true’ bible and therefore see no problem with following Old Testament concepts and principles without distinguishing those that are contrary to the spirit of Jesus.
Perhaps the next big advance that the Christian Churches has to make is in understanding that our bible is not a text book to be followed slavishly but rather a guide book that must be used in conjunction with reason and the Holy Spirit who will guide us as to what we should follow and what we should lay aside. Such an attitude is not cherry-picking. It is not just choosing what we want to choose and leaving the rest. Instead it is a vital next step in understanding how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as is prayed daily by Christians.
Contact with Jesus changed the thinking and attitudes of the disciples entirely. Meditation in and reflection about the gospel text in the following two thousand years has transformed our attitudes and the societies in which we live.
So lets look a little more closely at this attitude towards natural disasters. If, in addition to our actions having consequences, God sends punishments on us - at what level does this operate? Does it apply to just countries as a whole? Or is it just to governments? Or perhaps he goes down the line as far as County Councils? Maybe Rural Councils too? Does he visit us with dire results when we act individually? Or perhaps only when we are in groups? How big a group? Would he, for example, penalize a Mothers Union that passed a resolution that they agreed with the blessing of gay partnerships?
Is it not obvious to anyone what is happening here? We are seeing masked homophobia in all its ugliness. Some Christians feel deeply disturbed by the acceptance of homosexuality by society in general and by other Christians in particular, and feel some foreboding about the effect it is having on the church and on society. They wants to warn us all against any spread of acceptance of homosexuality. And consequently they think themselves into a state of mind where they see unpleasant crises and catastrophes as retributive acts of their God. Actually such acts would be vicious and vindictive - against people who are innocent and who would be without personal fault. They think that God floods people’s homes so that the Church and the Government can be warned off permitting homosexuality!
Well, it won’t work. It is just too primitive and simplistic a view to have any credence. Of course that is exactly how people used to think about God. The Old Testament is full of it. People were struck down by God in all sorts of places and in all sorts of ways in the Old Testament. There is a story about Elisa who was called names by some youths - he cursed them in the Lord’s name and then two bears came out of the woods and killed forty two of the youths And didn’t Elijah keep burning up the Captain of the Guard and his fifty soldiers?
When Jesus came he revealed a different God to us. No longer the distant and terrible figure of a vengeful God who must be appeased and obeyed, otherwise terrible things would happen. Instead we are told that God is loving and forgiving - someone we should call Abba, Father.
It must be added that, of course, I am not suggesting for one moment that we are without either accountability or judgement. Human beings are accountable for their actions - we have a degree of free will and we are able to make judgements both morally and spiritually. We shall be called to account for those decisions. None of us should ever think that what we decide, and do, does not matter, or that God will forgive because that is what he is there for. And, of course, actions have consequences. We need to recognise that we are given the freedom we have so that we can act responsibly. We have a choice, and that means that we are able to help build God’s kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven. We pray it every week. Now, as Christians, we have to live it.
Finally let me turn to the homophobic aspect of this whole sorry tale. What such ideas reveal is that what is behind the words is a severe homophobia. How can it be otherwise? People are often unconscious that they are being homophobic. They see it as a clear case of God striking the nation because it grants legal rights to gay people. I see in such an attitude of abhorrence of homosexuality in all its forms and a resistance to recognising gay people as being on an equal footing with heterosexual people.
Our religion tells us to love and accept all people - but people with such a viewpoint will only accept them if they will change and give up their horrid homosexuality.
So what is to be done about this? Nothing! It is useless arguing with anyone who maintains that God has sent floods to punish a nation that accepts gay people. Such people are not susceptible to arguments no matter how logically they are put. But it is good to stay alert - to recognise what is going on in certain parts of the Church - and why. Lets hope that before too long there will be a new generation that is better taught about the true cause of floods, and that understands the gospel of Christ better.