"One broods alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament and actually sees fearfully little of the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should now be able to give a clear and powerful witness" (Karl Barth)
I've been struck by the fact that there have been few pronouncements by the clergy on the floods caused by rivers breaking their banks, and the sea sweeping in with devastating effect. Back in 2007, flooding across much of England led to some senior clergy warning that it was a judgment on an immoral society.
Graham Dow, the Bishop of Carlisle, said that "This is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way," he said. "We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused", and if that was not enough, went on to place the blame on what he saw as sexual immorality - "The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance."
That was quite extraordinary, and we have seen nothing quite as blatant this time around. The Bishop of Carlisle has been thankfully quite muted, and I think the mood would be one of anger if he tried to effectively abuse the suffering of thousands of people by using their distress to further his own agenda. It is true that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is often taken as an example of judgment by natural disaster upon human vice, but I think we can no longer make such simplistic judgements. Floods hit 130 churches across England. Any clergy making over simplified judgements had better watch out, lest the spectre of sexual abuse of minors rears its head. That, of course, is the problem with a simple theology; it can fit so many patterns.
It is notable that the Archbishop of Canterbury has also been silent. You can search in vain on the web page for floods, flooding, Somerset, etc. Justin Welby has lots to say about economics and poverty, much of which is worth hearing, but nothing on the natural disaster just across the other side of England. In fact, the same silence is true across the religious communities, Britain's most senior Catholic, Cardinal Vincent Nichols has made no comment, not has Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. And the Muslim Council of Britain simply has said that its congregations would "make special prayers".
A better response that Dow's came in 2007 from Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, who said: "We are all part of the problem and part of the solution. Instead of living as if we owned the earth we need to recover a sense of being participants in a web of life with responsibilities to other life forms and to our children."
That at least looks at the weather patterns being caused in part by our own greed, and our refusal to contemplate any serious measures for climate change. In that sense, the weather is a judgement on us, and Chartres wisely does not say that it is God's judgement; it is something we have brought about ourselves.
This time round, the Rev Canon Professor Richard Burridge has a similar message. Speaking at Synod, he said that "Climate change is in sharp focus at the moment, with the UK experiencing such extreme flooding that even the chief scientist of the Met Office links [it] to climate change - not to mention forest fires in Australia and blizzards in the USA. Scientists warn about the damage we are creating but we do very little to mitigate the threat, or adapt to it."
He went on to note that "Pointing the finger at the extractive industries gets us off the hook and avoids the fundamental problem which is our selfishness and our way of life, which has been fuelled by plentiful, cheap energy and more and more people around the world wanting that."
And Steven Croft, the bishop of Sheffield, said that the threat of climate change was of our own doing - "Its power is fed by greed, blindness and complacency in the present generation, and we know that this giant wreaks havoc though the immense power of the weather systems, which are themselves unpredictable." He called on the church to lobby politicians on climate change to bring about the target 80% reduction by the UK on greenhouse gases.
Paul Cook of Tearfund said that the floods were a wake up call on climate change - "It's not just a problem for our grandchildren, it's not just a problem for polar bears, it's not just a problem for people thousands of miles away; it's a problem for us too, today."
Now all these are, I think, good responses, and much better than Graham Dow's, but it is disquieting that the leadership in the religious community remains silent. And the question that is not being asked here is: where is God in all of this?
One response comes from Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, when considering the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in the USA. She writes: "We reject the theology which holds that God sends disasters to punish us. But we can still find meaning in the confluence of this storm and this week's parsha."
And she goes on to say where she finds meaning, and God, in the natural disasters.
"My generation has grown up with the image of Earth seen from the moon -- that beautiful green-blue globe suspended in star-speckled space -- imprinted on our hearts. We may not believe in a God Who watches every action and decides who to punish and who to spare. But we know that our world is in our hands, and that our choices impact the innocent along with the guilty, every day."
"We have responsibility to the world at large to act justly. To make decisions which will decrease our impact on global climate. To care for those whose lives have been devastated by a storm like Sandy, and to take steps to ensure that those who are vulnerable aren't in harm's way."
"I don't believe that God causes hurricanes, but I believe that we can find God in a storm like this one. Reverend Kate Braestrup teaches that we find God in the helping hands of those who cook a meal, bring a casserole, saw through a fallen tree."
"God is in the nurses who carried NICU babies down flights of stairs in a New York City hospital, by flashlight, manually inflating small pumps for every breath. God is in those who work tirelessly to restore power, to care for the sick, to house the homeless. In the face of a disaster like this one, we find God in us."
"In coming days may we be willing, and able, to care for those in need here and everywhere."
"May we open both our hearts and our wallets to those who are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, rebuilding what has fallen."
"And may we find ourselves galvanized in our desire to co-create a world in which everyone is safe, and no one need fear violence, and no one's home is ever again washed away."
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