I wasn’t going to mention Israel Folau again, but then …

Australian BushfireI’ve been busy, but it’s that time of the semester when I’ve finished teaching and marking and now have some time to get back to writing for pleasure. I thought I’d finished with Israel Folau and didn’t want to give his bad theology any more publicity, but then he opened his mouth and spurted out more rubbish so I felt I just had to respond.

If his comments about homsexuals going to hell weren’t enough, this time he has claimed that the devestating bushfires raging across Australia are God’s punishment for same-sex marriage and abortion. This time Folau has proven how little he knows about the Bible.

The question of whether or not national calamities or personal disasters should be seen as a punishment from God is dealt with fairly extensively in the Bible in a ‘conversation’ that takes place over a long period, possibly centuries. There is little doubt that many people in the ancient world attributed disasters to God or the gods, and some of the writers of the Bible held the view that if you do the right thing you will prosper but if you do the wrong thing you will suffer. This view is often called ‘Deuteronomistic’ because it’s one of the hallmarks of the biblical literature which appears to stem from the book of Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 28 promises a number of blessings for Israel “if you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today” (28:1), but “if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you ..” followed by a list of the sort of calamities they could expect as a nation.

Other biblical books endorse this explanation of the connection between obedience/disobedience with rewards and punishments, such as this comment in Proverbs: “For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it” (2:21-22). This verse may very well have been problematic for the generation which witnessed the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, and the deportation of a large proportion of the population into exile. Many scholars think that several books of the Bible were written or edited during the time in exile in Babylon in an effort to make sense of how God could allow his people to be dragged from their ancient homeland when so many of them were innocent. The ‘old’ ideas of rewards and punishments didn’t make a great deal of sense in the face of righteous or innocent people losing their homes, livelihoods, lives and independance as a nation. If it was only the ‘wicked’ who suffered, the punishment-for-sin explanation would stand up, but when good people suffered for no apparent reason it was right to question the Deuteronomistic ideas, or even to abandon them.

Biblical writings such as the book of Job are evidence of this process of questioning, reformulating and abandoning inadequate or unsatisfactory ideas in action. The story of Job is of a good man – even by God’s estimation he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” – who suffered the loss of his possessions, livelihood, the deaths of all his children, and then a painful and debilitating disease. Throughout all his sufferings he remained “blameless and upright.” A long dialogue between Job and his friends, and then finally between Job and God, analyses and dissects various explanations for why people suffer. Ultimately Job is judged to have been faultless and the arguments of his friends – who claimed his sufferings must have been due to some fault which required punishment or correction – were dismissed as wrong. Behind Job’s suffering yet hidden from Job and friends – but known to the reader – was a story about a wager between Job and Satan as to whether or not Job would abandon his faith in the face of suffering. All his sufferings were the result of a bet! There was no cause-and-effect, no relationship between sin and suffering, no system of rewards and punishments for good or bad behaviour. Suffering is random, even unfair. There is no explanation for why good people suffer.

Yet at least two centuries later the old Deuteronomistic ideas still lingered and show up in the New Testament where, again, they are challenged and dismissed. A story in the Gospel of John tells of Jesus and his disciples coming across a man who was blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Behind their question is the notion that if someone suffered an ailment or disability this must have been because they sinned; but if this man was born blind, it raised the possibility that he was being punished for his parents’ sins, as he could hardly have sinned before he was born. The question itself highlights the absurdity of the argument that suffering is the consequence of sin, but to leave no doubt Jesus replied “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Other sayings by Jesus also emphasize that there is no relationship between sin and suffering. In Luke 13:1-5, for example, Jesus referred to two instances in Jerusalem where people were killed, and said these people were no worse than anyone else and their deaths were simply random events: “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”!

To use Jesus’ words, we could ask “Those people who were killed in the bushfires, or who lost their homes and possessions—do you think that they were worse offenders than anyone else?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”! We could broaden the question and ask “The bushfires and drought which has ravaged Australia—do you think it is because Australians are worse offenders than anyone else (by legislating for same-sex marriage)?” Again, the answer is a resounding “no”! (I’ve already dealt with Folau’s misquotations of the Bible on the subject of homosexuality so won’t go into them again).

Good people have lost their lives, livelihoods or possessions in the bushfires. Communities have been devestated. For a preacher to hold up the Bible and claim their suffering is the result of a decision to approve of same-sex marriage is not only unbiblical and absurd, it is callously insensitive and totally devoid of sympathy for their losses. It is obvious to anyone with a modicum of Biblical sense that Folau is ignorant of what the Bible actually says on the subject (possibly on any subject). I wish he would just keep quiet.

 

One comment on “I wasn’t going to mention Israel Folau again, but then …

  1. Spot on, Stephen. The “problem of evil” is such a theological paradox precisely because disaster does not strike proportionately to guilt. The reason for calamities such as the bush fires is hidden in the mystery of the divine will and we mere mortals cannot pretend to have insight into some cause-and-effect scenario. Following the example of our Master Jesus, we as Christians are called to show compassion and relieve the burdens of those who are suffering, not to speculate about whose fault the suffering might be.

    I found Bishop Robert Barron’s comments on the 2011 Japan Tsunami helpful here:

    See especially from about 2:00-3:40 as well as from 7:50 onward

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