I only tell this admittedly bad joke to contrast two distinct religious paths that the major Western theistic religions tread. Theologian and Minnesota candidate for the U.S. Senate, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, distinguishes the paths by their embrace or rejection of violence.
As Nelson-Pallmeyer points out in much of his writing and teaching, both threads — as contradictory as they are — find support in the same scripture. God destroys Sodom and Gommorah in a spasm of ultraviolence, even turning the fleeing wife of Lot into a pillar of salt for daring to look back on her burning home. Jesus places himself between a woman facing death and a crowd of men ready to stone her and challenges “he who is without sin” to cast the first stone. To say the least, these two narratives portray opposite understandings of what God is about.
The pastor whom John McCain pursued and courted for an endorsement has been clear about which path he is on.
All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.
What can we say about this? Here’s another, much older, and even worse joke:
Seems a bishop and a priest are out golfing. On one approach, the bishop undershoots the green and lands in a sand trap. “#$%^&, Missed!” mutters the bishop. The priest, taken aback, gently reminds the bishop that God is listening. On the next hole, the bishop overshoots the green and lands in a water hazard. “#$%^&, Missed!” he snarls. Again, the priest gently warns his superior that God, their superior, is not mocked. On the green, the bishop lines up a four foot putt — and doesn’t sink the ball. “#$%^&, Missed!” shouts the bishop. And suddenly, a bolt of lightening hurtles down from the sky — and kills the priest. “#$%^&, Missed!” mutters a voice from above.
The obvious point is that John Hagee’s idea of God is much like the god of this joke. Looking at the grim causalties of Katrina, it appears that the dead were not disproportionally gay. They were disporportionally elderly. And the displaced are disproportionally poor. So Hagee’s God apparently does not excel at surgical strikes at the iniquitous.
The point? As far as those on the path of wrath are concerned, who cares?
It takes a measure of compassion to feel for those who suffered, to think of the last moments of those whose bodies, floating upon the flood, appeared on our television screens, to suffer with the deputy sheriff breaking down in tears relating how no help came for his mother, who drowned in her nursing home days after the levees broke. But on the path of wrath, there is no room for compassion. God’s aim doesn’t matter. All that matters is that wrath is expressed in mighty acts of devastation.
On that path of wrath, you don’t place yourself between a woman caught in adultery and a crowd of men bearing stones. You might get stoned yourself — or eventually hung on a cross.
And it does matter which path those who would lead us call to for counsel. If we’ve learned anything in eight years, we’ve learned it matters very, very much.