Environmental Disasters, Ancient & Modern (Jeremiah)

Every Creature Singing: Environmental Disasters, Ancient & Modern
Jeremiah 18:11-17; 9:10; 4:23-28
June 3, 2018
Joanna Harader

Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet,” so it seems appropriate that we are reading from the book of Jeremiah as we think about natural disasters and environmental degradation. His reputation as a cry-er comes from serving God as a prophet during the siege and fall of Jerusalem and into the Babylonian exile. This was a traumatic time for the Israelites; their enemies were brutal and the people suffered starvation, murder, beatings, kidnapping, and other forms of violence.

So, obviously, the weeping prophet was weeping for the people. But not, I think, just for the people. Along with the suffering of the people, Jeremiah also writes quite a bit about the damage done to the land.

In Jeremiah 2, the people are condemned for defiling God’s land. Then there is the beautifully tragic passage from Jeremiah 4 that we heard at the beginning of the service. Listen to parts of it again and see if you hear the reversal of the Genesis 1 creation story:

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light. . . .
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,

In chapter 8, Jeremiah warns that the enemies will come “devour the land and all that fills it.” And in Jeremiah 9 there is wailing for the mountains and lamentations for the pastures. In chapter 12, Jeremiah, in despair, asks God: “How long will the land mourn, / and the grass of every field wither?” Chapter 14 is a prophetic vision of a great drought, and the suffering it will cause for humans and animals alike:

 Because there has been no rain on the land
the farmers are dismayed;
. . . Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
. . . The wild asses stand on the bare heights,
they pant for air like jackals;

Clearly, Jeremiah’s tears are for the people and also for the land itself and the animals; for the suffering that comes in the wake of warfare and natural disasters.

Despite all the technological advances since the time of the ancient Israelites, we still experience natural disasters that devastate the land and people who live on it. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires . . . And, like ancient peoples, we still struggle to understand God’s role these events that cause so much suffering.

You may have heard some—generally conservative—religious leaders explaining to the masses why certain disasters happen. After the Haitian earthquake in 2009 killed over 200,000 people, Pat Robertson said it was provoked by the Haitian’s “pact with the devil.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed about 1,800 people, and conservative pastors rushed to explain the disaster as God’s judgment—though there wasn’t complete agreement on what exactly God was mad about. But probably abortion, or insufficient support for Israel, or gay people.

Turns out, gay people—and those of us who support gay rights—are responsible for lots of weather-related catastrophes. You can find lists online that include:

  • the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles county that killed 72 people.
  • The Japanese tsunami in 2011 that killed over 15,000 people.
  • Hurricane Bonnie in 1988—this last one was not caused by God’s anger at gay people in general, but at God’s particular dislike of Disney World’s Gay Days weekend.

While the ancient prophets, like Jeremiah, did not blame Israel’s disasters—natural and otherwise—on gay people or feminism, they did often attribute them to God’s anger at the people for disobeying what they perceived to be the will of God in various ways. Idolatry is often cited by prophets as a reason for God’s wrath. The passage we heard from Jeremiah 18 says: “But my people have forgotten me, / they burn offerings to a delusion; . . . Like the wind from the east / I will scatter them before the enemy.”

People do bad things, so God gets mad and sends deadly natural disasters. That’s a common and long-standing theological explanation, but it’s not an explanation that I am very comfortable with. This idea that God punishes entire communities, entire groups of people, for the sins of some. Really, the idea that God spends so much divine energy on meting out punishments at all.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been immersed in discussions about incarceration recently; maybe it’s because I am a parent; maybe I’ve been reading too much from the prophets lately; but I have been thinking a lot about punishment. What is the purpose—and even the effectiveness—of punishment? And what might be better ways to deal with people who break society’s rules and/or harm others?

I trust you all are up for another Hebrew word study? Here is the NRSV translation of Jeremiah 21:14:

“I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, says the Lord.
I will kindle a fire in its forest and it shall devour all that is around it.”

Terence Fretheim, an Old Testament scholar, says that this Hebrew word, paqad, is inaccurately translated as “punish”in this verse and others. A better translation, he argues, would be, “I will visit on you the fruit of your doings.” In the Hebrew understanding, Fretheim explains, God designed the world so that actions have consequences. People’s suffering grows out of misdeeds, yes—but as natural consequences of people’s actions–not as unrelated punishments from an angry God.

In Israel’s case, it was their unfaithfulness and internal squabbling that weakened the fabric of their society and made them vulnerable to foreign armies. And it was their leaders’ duplicity and injustice that paved the way for their destruction and exile. Their actions had consequences.

As much as I cringe every time I hear a supposedly Christian preacher blame a disaster on “sinners,” I don’t think we can completely discount the basic idea that human sin can cause disasters and suffering. But of course, it matters what actions we call sin and how we connect those actions with the disasters. Obviously hurricanes are not caused by people being gay and earthquakes do not happen because of “pacts with the devil.” I’m pretty sure my stubbornness in being a woman and a pastor at the same time has not caused so much as a tornado in the state of Kansas.

But there are other types of sin that can be more logically connected to natural disasters. Pacts with the literal devil might not cause earthquakes, but what about contracts with certain profit-driven companies that promote fracking?

And the science is becoming increasingly clear about the cause/effect relationship of global warming to natural disasters—or at least to the increased frequency and intensity and fatalities of natural disasters. Data has long been accumulating to support the general idea that rising atmospheric temperatures are causing more severe weather events; now there is increasing evidence to link specific disasters to global warming. (I don’t really understand, nor do I have time to explain, all of this science. But you can look it up.)

Our sins of excess and disregard for God’s creation are, at least in part, responsible for natural disasters and the suffering they cause. But is this divine punishment or logical consequence?

If we understand Jesus to be the most full revelation of God on earth, then we should be skeptical of any punishment-oriented theology. Another thing that steers me away from the punishment understanding is that those who suffer the most because of environmental degradation and disasters are often the people least responsible for them. Poor coastal communities in developing nations endure the intensity of hurricanes and tsunamis made stronger because of excessive carbon emissions in the United States. The most conspicuous consumers have the wealth to rebuild or move after a disaster while those with fewer resources struggle to rebuild their lives.

If this were punishment, it would be administered to the people who have sinned. But consequences . . . Well, sometimes we suffer the consequences of the sins of others. And sometimes others suffer for our sins.

It is easy to dismiss the words and warnings of the prophets because they seem so far removed from our context, from our historical and cultural realities. They are always going on and on about idolatry, which we really aren’t into anymore . . . so . . . these writings aren’t really for us.

Except, of course, they are. Because idolatry is still very much a reality in our world. Not so much bowing down to golden statues kinds of idolatry, but there are plenty of gods we worship. Just look at the uproar over athletes who take a knee during the national anthem. That is making an idol out of country—not even country but a particular idea about how to show respect for a country. And this idolatrous nationalism does indeed have vast consequences—environmental and otherwise.

One of the prophets’ frequent complaints about idolatry was the often-required child sacrifices. And while we certainly do not slaughter children on stone altars these days, we are not being honest with ourselves if we believe that we do not, in fact, sacrifice children to the gods of power, prosperity, and nationalism. We’ve seen the stories recently about children separated from their parents at the border. I’ve been listening to a radio series on the juvenile “justice” system and school to prison pipeline. The United States has a higher infant mortality rate than comparable countries—such as Canada, Great Britain, and Germany. Our under 5 mortality rate is almost twice as high as South Korea’s.

It’s not difficult to find modern examples of child sacrifice once you start looking for them. Many of the people who suffer the consequences of environmental degradation and global warming are children.

The reality is that the words of Jeremiah—and other prophets—are more relevant than we would like to believe. And some of the tragedies in this world may be more connected to human sin that we would like to admit.

I realize that this is a lot of doom and gloom for a [sunny] Sunday morning. So I’d like to leave you with some words of hope. These words were spoken by God to King Solomon, explaining what would happen when natural disaster struck; when there was drought or a locust infestation. This verse (2 Chronicles 7:14) has been coopted by conservatives who want people to repent of their sexual “sins,” their feminism, their anti-nationalism. But I’m taking the verse back, because it is a verse that I believes speaks to our current dire environmental situation, that calls us to address the true sins of our communities, and that offers a much-needed word of hope.

Here is what God said to King Solomon; what God is saying to us:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

If my people turn, I will heal their land.” May it be so. Amen.