Back to the Future: From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti

Below is an article I wrote shortly after the Hurricane Katrina debacle; many of the issues regarding karma and theory of divine retribution could apply to the Haiti earthquake.


In Late Antiquity, the philosopher Epicurus fleshes out the cognitive dissonance people experience when contemplating the problem of theodicy:

1. Is God unable to prevent evil?

2. Is God unwilling to prevent evil?

3. If God is able and willing to prevent evil, then where does evil come from?

4. If God is neither able nor willing to prevent evil, then why do we call him “god”?

If God micromanages creation, as the Flood narrative seems to teaches, then why does the Creator tolerate natural evil? More to the point: Is all natural evil directly or indirectly due to moral evil? When the Lisbon earthquake struck in 1759, many skeptics wondered how God could allow such a devastating disaster to strike. From the modern critical perspective, the story of the Flood raises serious issues regarding the relationship between natural evil, commonly referred to as “acts of God,” and God’s justice.  In the case of moral evil, the impact felt by the victim is identifiable and with the help of the law, the perpetrator(s) can be brought to justice. But natural evil poses a different kind of problem. One cannot subpoena an earthquake or a fire, or a disease after they strike. When natural evil strikes, the effects leave for the most part, little positive benefits with nobody to blame—except God.

Back to the Future: From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti

After the Lisbon earthquake, the French philosopher Voltaire articulated his own brand of Epicurean doubt. Voltaire wondered how religious people could still refer to God as “benevolent” or “loving” after the death of so many thousands of innocents. In response to Voltaire’s criticism, his fellow Frenchman, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that human beings must take the primary responsibility for what happened during the Lisbon earthquake. Poorly designed structural buildings, along with a lack of thoughtful urban planning and human error, played a role in the corporate damage the earthquake caused. A superiorly designed city might have suffered much less casualties and death. [1]

It is remarkable and ironic that Voltaire would put greater reliance on God given his penchant for upsetting the local ecclesiastical authorizes on matters of faith. It is no less ironic to see one of the great secular philosophers of his age, Rousseau, defend God’s order of creation with the vim and vigor of a skilled theologian.  “If,” as the philosopher Susan Neiman writes, “Enlightenment is the courage to think for oneself; it is also the courage to assume responsibility for the world which one is thrown into.”[2] This message applies to all the genocides that we have witnessed in the last 100 years or more. Mature faith calls for diligence and activism.

Rousseau and Voltaire’s debate could apply no less to the destruction of New Orleans produced by Hurricane Katrina. Voltaire would certainly condemn the faith of those who believed in a benevolent deity. By the same token, Voltaire would have also scoffed at the religious leaders of today who saw Katrina as a divine tribulation for the city’s brazen sins. Religious leaders from numerous faiths ascribed a variety of reasons as to why Hurricane Katrina was so devastating. Some leaders blamed the licentious life-style of New Orleans[3], while others claimed it was divine retribution for the United States’ support of the removal of Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip.[4] Buddhist and Hindu scholars blamed it on karma, while Muslim across the globe imams proclaimed in unison, “The Terrorist Katrina is one of the Soldiers of Allah…”[5]

Back to Haiti

It has long been my position that God does not and has never acted as a coercive force in the world or in human history.  The Bible always stresses the concept of a bilateral relationship, or better yet–partnership, where God calls upon people to serve as the instruments of redemption. God’s all-mighty power must be seen in relational and persuasive terms. I am reminded of a comment the Gerer Rebbe once said to Sir Winston Churchill, when the latter asked the saintly Rebbe how he would like to see WWII end. The Rebbe replied, “There are two ways for the war to end: one is supernatural, the other is natural. The natural means to end the war involves heavenly angels descending from the heavens, shooting arrows of fire into the hearts of the enemy. The supernatural redemption would involve a million soldiers invading Europe, who would finally defeat the Nazis.”

Mature faith demands that we embody God’s compassion by getting involved with the business of rescue. Thank God, there are a lot of wonderful folks who have gotten involved.

Josette Sheeran, Executive Director World Food Program (WFP),  has done a miraculous job in mobilizing all available resources to provide urgently needed food assistance as part of a rapid and coordinated recovery effort. In today’s news, we learned that  the WFP is immediately airlifting an additional 86 metric tons of food from its emergency hub in El Salvador, which will provide more than half a million emergency meals. This is the kind of miraculous redemption the Bible expects us to achieve; we cannot rely on God to do it all by Himself, we have to lend the Creator our helping hand as well!

[1] Rousseau writes in his correspondence with Voltaire:  “I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man. . . . Moreover . . the majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work. Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature that there brought together twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock. But many obstinately remained . . . to expose themselves to additional earth tremors because what they would have had to leave behind was worth more than what they could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster through the desire to fetch their clothing, papers, or money? . . . There are often events that afflict us . . . that lose a lot of their horror when we examine them closely. I learned in Zadig, and nature daily confirms my lesson, that a rapid death is not always a true misfortune, and that it can sometimes be considered a relative blessing. Of the many persons crushed under Lisbon’s ruins, some without doubt escaped greater misfortunes, and . . . it is not certain that a single one of these unfortunates suffered more than if, in the normal course of events, he had awaited [a more normal] death to overtake him after long agonies. Was death [in the ruins] a sadder end than that of a dying person overburdened with useless treatments, whose notary and heirs do not allow him a respite, whom the doctors kill in his own bed at their leisure, and whom the barbarous priests artfully try to make relish death? For me, I see everywhere that the misfortunes nature imposes upon us are less cruel than those which we add to them. . . . “Voltaire’s Correspondence, vol. 30 (Geneva: Institute et Musee Voltaire, 1958), 115-128.

[2] Evil in Modern Thought:  An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004, 2002), 4.

[3]In Philadelphia, Michael Marcavage viewed this as a divine punishment for welcoming gay men and lesbians from across the country were set to participate in a New Orleans street festival called “Southern Decadence.” He added, “We take no joy in the death of innocent people,” said Marcavage, who was an intern in the Clinton White House in 1999 and now runs Repent America, an evangelistic organization calling for “a nation in rebellion toward God” to reclaim its senses. “But we believe that God is in control of the weather,” he said in a telephone interview. “The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter was flooded was the day that 125,000 homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the streets. . . . We’re calling it an act of God” (The Advocate, Jan. 17, 2006).

[4] Rabbi Joseph Garlitzky, head of the international Chabad Lubavitch movement’s Tel Aviv synagogue, recounted for WND a pulpit speech he gave this past Sabbath: “And here there are many obvious connections between the storm and the Gaza evacuation, which came right on top of each other. Nobody  has permission to take away one inch of the land of Israel from the Jewish people” (WorldNet News, Sept. 7, 2005).

[5] “…As I watched the horrible sights of this wondrous storm, I was reminded of the Hadith of the Messenger of Allah [in the compilations] of Al-Bukhari and Abu Daoud. The Hadith says: ‘The wind is of the wind of Allah, it comes from mercy or for the sake of torment. When you see it, do not curse it, [but rather] ask Allah for the good that is in it, and ask Allah for shelter from its evil.’ Afterwards, I was [also] reminded of the words of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘Do not curse the wind, as it is the fruit of Allah’s planning. He who curses something that should not be cursed – the curse will come back to him.” (World Tribune, September 1, 2005).

3 thoughts on “Back to the Future: From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    The fact is, without natural disasters life itself would be impossible on Earth. Mars is geologically dead, but once held liquid water and a thicker atmosphere when it was active. It may have even held primitive life forms. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanism renew earth’s crust and atmosphere; keeping them viable for continued life. When the Earth becomes geologically quiet, many years in the future, life itself will eventually cease like on Mars. This is small comfort to innocent victims caught up in these disasters, but should put things in perspective. The world functions according to the laws of nature. God can alter them, but not w/o unforeseen (by us) consequences. Hopefully, there is an afterlife where things are set right for the sufferers.

  2. Renton says:

    When people judges God for something they do not understand, they do ot according to their agenda, that’s it, they see God as good if the Lord do what they think is good.

    They want a Omnipotent God, something like a Genius of the Lamp who do what they want Him to do.

    The problem (to them) is that God is Omnipotent, and Sovereign.

    8 “ For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
    9 “ For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    So are My ways higher than your ways,
    Isiah 55

  3. Editilla~New Orleans Ladder says:

    I really hope you have more to offer on the causes of the Devastation in New Orleans 8/29/05.
    This kitzy little misnomer about God leaves me retching. I was there when the Corps of Engineers’ levees and flood walls failed in 56 locations. It was not Katrina any more than a Jealous God.
    It was your Corps of Engineers. You paid to flood New Orleans because they lied to you and all of us about the safety of their engineering.
    It wasn’t the people of New Orleans.
    It wasn’t government corruption.
    It wasn’t Katrina the Clown.
    It was the Levees and they were built by Our Corps of Engineers.

    Given that over 50% of the population of this country lives in counties with levees and flood control, y’all better get better at pegging the Causes of Man-Made Disasters as God is just going to leave us to our own devices. What we do with them is another thing.

    Thank you

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