Friday, January 15, 2010

Religious Discourse of Disaster

The story goes like this: A Christian couple landed in Port au Prince just hours before the earthquake. They were delayed at the airport and did not reach their hotel before the devastation began. This was a good thing for them – the hotel was destroyed in the quake. Had they been in the hotel at the time they would have surely been dead along with everyone else in the hotel. So what do you say about this? A case for God’s intervention in their lives?

There have been a number of times that I have heard these sort of comments made about these type of events. Had events carried out as they should have circumstances would have indicated a much more disagreeable result. But because events occurred in the manner that they did – there is an attribution to God’s intervention in the situation to produce a different result than should have occurred. Terms like miraculous are attached to these type of situations.

It occurred to me that when we speak of events like this using this type of language we accept a particular discourse about the nature of God and the privilege that is experienced by certain kinds of people – in this case Christians.

Take in account that in the same earthquake a prison holding over 4000 rapists, murders, and thieves was struck. the quake killed some of the inmates but most found the destruction the perfect opportunity to escape the prison. So did God intervene here as well? Was this not also a miracle?

Haiti Earthquake News: Main Prison Destroyed, 4,000 Prisoners Escape - Crimesider - CBS News

Now I have no particular contention with idea that God might be in the business of picking certain people to benefit from avoiding disaster or calamity. There is ample scriptural evidence that could support such a claim – especially if one is interested in using the classic proof-texting methodology. There are other verses similarly isolated which tell us that rain and sunshine fall on the just and unjust equally. If we put claims God’s specific intervention in particular cases, what does that tell us about who we believe God to be? But as interesting as that question might be to debate it is not nearly as revealing as the questions that arise around our use of terminology like miracle, or intervention in these types of cases.

Setting aside the debates about the nature of God, it occurs to me that our use of this terminology tell us something important about how we construct notions of privilege. I contend that we are engaging in a powerful discursive exercise (often without really being aware of it).

It is interesting that we would not refer to the new found freedom of the inmates to be the hand of God at work while we would attach that provision to the Christian couple whose airport delay was their greatest fortune. The discourse paints one group as able to access the benefit from God’s hand while the other group does not have that same access. Consider that the held belief is that none should perish and that by sparing these inmates from destruction God gave them an extension on their opportunity to avoid damnation. Salvation was offered to them. Is that also not a miracle? That is tricky business…

The couple on the other hand receives by our judgement the mercy of God on their lives with an easy and natural assessment. Their story of good fortune is God at work but the prisoners do not get that label – at least not so easily.

I wonder if this does not actually reveal some of the more dangerous parts of religious arrogance that we all too easily fall into. Do statements like these actually belie some unspoken assumptions about the deserving nature of the type of people who might be awarded God’s favour? Do we actually think – for instance – that Christians in this disaster had more of an advantage of being spared than those who did not follow Christ? And that is only the surface, I suspect if we were courageous enough we might reveal some of the same power laden colonial attitudes that characterize our Western sense of privilege but that might not be very comfortable for us to swallow.

So let’s open up our wallets and dump some cash to ease our guilt and sympathy – but keep enough to go see that latest animated flick that has really cool religious overtones…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the contrast you've made here Dale. I see how this sort of thing can pose a problem for both believers and non-believers. I think believers develop an expectation that these sorts of good things happen because they believe in God, while non-followers are told that they can expect these miricales if they believe. The debate could then begin of what is God's provision and what is ahh er', not...

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