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Don't ask God for a flu shot

I thought about this last fall when I was getting a flu shot and two more immunizations that were new for me: shots for pneumonia and shingles. However, it does not occur to me to pray to be protected from the flu every autumn. Those of us who take the Old Testament view of life's ups and downs may be in this state of mind, but if we fall into it, we risk the intellectual defeats that have caused thousands of Jewish people to lose their faith.

The huge body blow to the Jewish mindset occurred, of course, when the Holocaust swept over Europe, beginning with the Pogroms and climaxing with the Third Reich and their death camps. But it harks back to the very roots of Jewish theology, and their theologians today are grappling with the balance between the old fear of God's punishment and the new idea that bad things can happen to good people--if there is such a balance.

If you read the works of Rabbi Harold S. Kushman, you will see how he strove to separate the concepts of an all-powerful God and the concept that some things simply happen by random causality. Not every event in our lives can be ascribed to the work of God, although you will hear people say foolishly that "there are no coincidences," or "everything happens for a reason," or "God is in charge."

I suppose it is worth it for some people who are willing to assent to anything in exchange for certainty. Evangelical faith tells you to accept the either-or state of mind, and in return you can be sure that you are going to heaven. But meanwhile, a splashy article today on the internet revealed that for the seventh year in a row, membership in the Southern Baptist Conference has declined. The people who split their time between KKK meetings and church attendance are seeing their numbers going down--surprise, surprise!

It does the SBC no good to have spokespersons such as Franklin Graham prostituting the name of his father to persecute the LGBT community, and as he rolls merrily along plagiarizing the great Billy Graham's name for his screeds the number of people attending Baptist churches is going down and down. Why won't Graham and others give up their hate? It is because they have been terrified into submission by the Old Testament portrait of the angry, vengeful God who would unleash war, persecution and plagues on "his people" if they displease him. The vehemence with which Graham preaches against gay Americans is just the reverse side of the terror in which he lives his life, the fear that he will fall short somehow and end up shrieking out eternity in a lake of fire.

It is one thing to surrender our self-will in exchange for security, but quite another to abdicate any attempt to use our common sense and simply justify everything that happens as God's will. Years ago it was more common to hear someone say, "It was God's will," when family members were trying to cope with grief. What it really accomplished (or so hoped the person who said it) was to quiet people who were grieving or keep them from asking questions.

We see this all the way back into the early history of the Hebrew people. They made a mistake by accepting the creative invention of hundreds of "laws" by overzealous thinkers, and imputing to God an attitude of punishment for infractions of those laws. This leads to the belief that it was not King Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians who attacked Israel--no, it was God who did it. God simply used the Assyrians as a tool to punish Hebrews who were less than perfect in their observances. It even shows up in the letter of St. Paul to the Romans in which he makes the silly claim that God struck a community gay--they all woke up gay one morning, men and women both--because they were not sufficiently devout (even though he does not mention whether they were Jewish).

This way leads to madness. But even today it is not uncommon to hear the question, "What did I do to deserve this?" on the lips of many people who don't object to the idea that God would do terrible things to us even though we are simultaneously expected to love and worship him. Well, how much did you worship the playground bully, or the teacher who graded you unfairly, or the boss who fired you over issues that you thought unjust? We do not love such individuals.

Ultimately this attitude crashed on the Holocaust, with heroic figures like Elie Wiesel admitting that it destroyed his faith. Only by rethinking our concept of God can faith survive such events. If you have not read Wiesel's book Night, you are under-educated.

Still, I think that it is neither appropriate nor valid to make stinging denunciations of God (who does not make an appearance to defend himself) after a human event occurs that we as a society could have prevented or at least mitigated. Every now and then we are visited by a catastrophe like the tsunami in South Asia, and the world springs into well-organized action to pick up the pieces. Food, water and shelter are transported; field hospitals spring up; the Red Cross begins to divert resources where they are needed. But why is this not going on right now, in places like Africa? We all know the needs that exist, and it is not a matter of making bitter complaints that God is not fixing the problems--it is a matter of our priorities, isn't it?

This week President Barack Obama made a speech at West Point describing the imminent end of the war in Afghanistan, and he has been denounced by Republicans for drawing down American forces. Do we accept that our public officials prefer war to peace? If we do, we will get war with the next Republican president.

The idea that God visits horrors on innocent people because of the "sins" of others in their community is grotesque, but Christianity has not yet evolved beyond that idea. You will find the seeds of a new theology in the works of Rabbi Kushner and Bishop John Shelby Spong, among others, but if you peruse the shelves of your nearby bookstore you will find that far more of the volumes are dedicated to rationalizing the concept that God is, as Bill Maher put it, a psychotic mass murderer and we ought to love him for it. This is nonsense and it is emptying the pews of our churches. And it should--until theology grows up.

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