Saturday, March 12, 2011

When Disaster Strikes, the Blame Game Begins (UPDATED)

Recently, I was struck by several articles involving religion and natural disasters. First, in her commentary at Religion Dispatches, Anthea Bulter reflects on religious conversations via Twitter that attribute the 8.9 earthquake in Japan to God's wrath. Second, Right Wing Watch reports that Chuck Pierce described Japan as a "stronghold of spiritism" and its recent earthquake as a message from God. KVIA 7 reports that El PAso city council candidate Malcolm McGregor III said the Japanese earthquake was a possible curse from God. Generals International preacher Cindy Jacobs claimed that God is using the earthquake to pierce the "darkness" surrounding the Japanese people, according to Truth Wins Out. Finally, Pink Paper reports that an American church is preaching that the New Zealand Christchurch quake is God's retribution against gays and lesbians. In the face of disasters, why is it that some observers respond with compassion, while others respond with victim-blaming?

I've noticed that some high-profile fundamentalist Christians have reacted to tragedies by blaming either the victims or a despised group for inciting God's fury. No introduction is needed for the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members cite everything from military casualties to private horrors as evidence of God's disgust with America's alleged immorality. However, other high-profile fundamentalists have blamed victims or despised groups for tragedies, earning them endless controversy.

For example, shortly after the September 11th attacks, Jerry Falwell appeared on The 700 Club and insisted that the ACLU, feminists, pagans, abortion providers, and gays helped the tragedy happen. 700 Club host Pat Robertson concurred. Falwell later backtracked on this statement.

Pat Robertson himself has made controversial statements about disaster victims as well. Following the 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, Robertson attributed Haiti's misfortune to a supposed "pact to the devil" that their ancestors made.

"They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called Robertson's comments "stupid."

John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, stirred controversy with his comments about gays in New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged large sections of the U.S. Gulf Coast, Hagee told NPR that Katrina was God's retribution for a planned gay pride parade in New Orleans.

Religious Right victim-blaming is not limited to modern-day tragedies, nor is it limited to natural disasters. Earlier this year, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association blamed the poverty and alcoholism afflicting some Native American communities on their refusal to embrace Christianity. In another column, Fischer wrote that the bloody conquest of the Native Americans could have been avoided if they'd simply converted to Christianity and assimilated into Euro-American culture. In this cruel and bizarre twist of logic, it was not the Euro-American perpetrators of racial oppression and genocide, but their Native American victims, who were to blame for the conquest of the Americas.

Having observed this blaming pattern among several right-wing Christians, I suspect that one of three factors might be at work. First, those who blame disaster victims or despised groups for catastrophes may be trying to psychologically dissociate themselves from the victims. By believing that the victims (or gays, or feminists, or non-Christians) brought about a catastrophe by provoking God's anger, commentators can then conclude that they can avoid catastrophe themselves by pleasing God. While this approach may soothe commentators' fear of disaster, it also dampens their empathy for those who are suffering.

Second, those who blame victims or despised groups may be wrestling with theodicy. If God controls all things, and if God is just, why would God inflict catastrophes on innocent people? The idea that disasters can befall anyone, anywhere -- that it rains on the just and the unjust alike -- may be too much for them to fathom. To preserve the idea that God is just, an observer may assume that disaster victims (or a disliked group) must therefore have done something deserving of divine punishment.

Finally, such commentators might be cynically trying to frighten their audience into accepting fundamentalist Christianity. By attributing catastrophes to allegedly "sinful" groups, commentators may be trying to frighten believers into ideological compliance. The fact that devout believers, non-believers, and everyone in between fall victim to catastrophes is not considered.

In this time of so many tragedies worldwide, blame and scapegoating will bring no comfort to victims. Compassion and concrete aid have always been what victims need most, not blame.


  1. Ahab, I am always impressed with your ability to stand in the face of stark irrationality and hatred and, with a grace and intelligence devoid of anger, calmly analyze the truth with pinpoint accuracy.

    It is a beautiful thing to observe and such a stark contrast to the haters. Here's to hoping for more compassion.

    Speaking of gracious people, my heart breaks for the people in Japan. The devastation is too much to comprehend. If I hear one more person claim that the tragedy is the result god's wrath, I can only hope that I can respond with something like your grace and intelligence. But I can't promise anything ...

  2. Cognitive Dissenter -- Thanks for your generous words, as always. Japan is struggling with a horrible situation right now -- earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant dangers -- and my thoughts are with them.

  3. Among other things, I have to ask: "Why on earth would I want to belong to a religion (fundamentalist Christianity) that believes in a god that punishes people with earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, death and destruction? Why would I EVER want to believe in such an evil, nasty, and vindictive god? Why would I want, after my death, to spend eternity frolicking with the small-minded, fearful, hateful and vindictive adherents of such a religion?

    I would not. Obviously.

    I am grateful that I do not look out judgmentally on the world from a place of hatred, fear and bigotry, utterly lacking in compassion.

    Hateful nutjobs like Falwell and his ilk should spend less time judging and condemning others, and more time examining their own lives. But they will never do that. They prefer to live in a place of fear and anger. They make me ill.

  4. I think to a large degree it's a defense mechanism, like you said. (Whew! This won't happen to us, we're too righteous.) Then when horrible things happen to some of the less humble faithful, they counter with -- but those lost had finished their work on earth, and were so righteous, that god wanted to bring them home.

    Either way, it's insensitive, and a poor way of dealing with grief. Accepting loss, acknowledging our own frailty, and then reaching out to help others in need is a kinder and healthier approach.

    My thoughts are with them too, and I'm worried about that nuclear plant.

  5. Oh look, I guess this guy just wasn't doing God's work the right way, so he got taken out:

    That, or Catholicism just doesn't rate with God. Or perhaps it's another one of God's mysteries...

    Sorry for the sarcasm.

  6. Knatolee -- Such a spiteful, petty god will never have my worship, nor will the worshippers of such a god have me as their ally. It must be a very unhappy life, living in a place of anger and fear.

    Donna -- Spot on. Human life is fragile and unpredictable, with bad things frequently happening to good people. How well we adapt to this chaos, and how much empathy we afford the victims of tragedies, says much about our maturity.


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