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Did God Send a Tornado to Warn The ELCA?
On Wednesday, August 19, five small tornados formed in and around the Twin Cities. Included among the property damage was a broken church steeple. It just so happens that Central Lutheran Church was hosting the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and that one of the issues they were discussing was their stance on homosexuality. According to John Piper, this is no coincidence.
In a blog that unfortunately managed to make it on the local evening news John offered “an interpretation of this Providence.” He claimed “[t]he tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.” You can read his blog here.
Now, I appreciate John as a brother in Christ and respect him as a pastor working for the Kingdom. And I have no quarrel with his view that homosexuality should not be affirmed as God’s ideal. But when he publicly claims to discern a divine warning behind the behavior of a particular tornado, I feel I need to offer a public response, if only to remind non-Christians that not all Christians think like this.
Here are six questions and objections I believe John would need to address if his speculation about why a particular tornado struck a church was to be considered remotely plausible.
1. Why does John discern a divine motive behind a damaged church steeple but not behind any other damage this tornado caused? For example, the roof of the Minneapolis Convention Center was damaged by this same tornado. Was God sending a warning by having his judging tornado damage this building? Or what about the damage cause by the other four tornadoes that struck the Twin Cities area around the same time? A middle school in North Branch was badly damaged, for example. Was this school more affirming toward gays than other schools in the area?
2. According to the National Weather Service, the United States is hit by about 1300 tornados each year, on average. Does John discern a pattern that these tornados tend to strike places that are more pro-gay, or even just generally more sinful, than others? I did a little research, and it turns out that the place where tornados tend to strike the most frequently and do the most damage is in the Bible Belt, with Oklahoma topping the list. And, interestingly enough, it turns out that those states that have the most progressive stances toward gays (e.g. Massachusetts, Vermont, New York) are among the states that typically experience the least tornado damage. Doesn’t this fact by itself completely undermine John’s speculation as to why a Minneapolis church steeple was damaged?
I have an alternative interpretation of tornado behavior to offer. They have nothing to do with how pro-gay or how sinful people are and everything to do with where people happen to live. Tornadoes strike Oklahoma frequently because it’s located in a place where hot and cold air currents tend to collide frequently at certain times of the year. Much less frequently, the same thing happens in the Twin Cities. Why can’t we just leave it at that?
3. One has to wonder why God would single out the ELCA’s discussion of homosexuality as worthy of a tornado hit while by-passing so many other serious issues. To give one example, there are over 400 distinct passages encompassing over 3,000 verses in the Bible that address issues related to poverty. Compare this with homosexuality, a topic that is explicitly mentioned a total of two times in the Old Testament and three times in the New. On top of this, the most frequently mentioned reason God judged cities and nations in the Old Testament was because they failed to care for the needy. And, finally, if there’s any sin American churches fail to seriously confront, it’s this one.
In light of this, wouldn’t you assume that if God was going to send warnings and/or inflict punishment with tornados he’d strike some of the many American churches and denominations that condone, if not Christianize, greed and apathy toward the poor? Yet John would have us believe that God had his tornado skip past these churches (and a million other punishment-worthy locations, like child sex-slave houses) in order to damage the steeple of a church because the people inside were wrestling with issues related to homosexuality. If John is right, God’s priorities must have radically changed since biblical times.
4. If John is right and God seriously wants to “send messages” through things like destructive tornados, why doesn’t he speak a little more clearly? Why not take all the guess work out of it? Honestly, if there was a divine point to be found in the destructive behavior of tornados, why does he make it look like tornados form and move in complete accord with the laws of physics, striking whatever buildings and people who happen to be in their way? And why would God leverage whatever point he’s trying to make on the implausible speculations of certain individuals who dare to offer public guesses as to what he’s up to?
5. John justifies his interpretation by claiming “Jesus Christ controls the wind, including all tornados.” He supports this claim by quoting Mark 4:41 in which Jesus’ disciples ask; “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” What’s interesting to me is that the disciples make this remark in response to Jesus having just rebuked a threatening storm. If Jesus was already controlling all storms, as John claims, why on earth would he need to rebuke this one?
Even more interesting, Jesus “rebukes” the storm by commanding it to be “quiet.” The Greek term used here literally means “to muzzle” or “strangle,” and its the same word he sometimes used when confronting demons. The implication is that, far from suggesting that Jesus controls all storms, the passage actually suggests that at least some life-threatening storms have a demonic power behind them that resists God’s good purposes (for a fuller discussion on this, see Boyd, God at War [IVP, 1997]).
6. Finally, and most remarkably, John attempts to further justify his speculation about the damaged church steeple by alluding to Luke 13:4-5, which he summarizes by saying:
“When asked about a seemingly random calamity near Jerusalem where 18 people were killed, Jesus answered in general terms—an answer that would cover calamities in Minneapolis, Taiwan, or Baghdad. God’s message is repent, because none of us will otherwise escape God’s judgment.”
What’s amazing is that in this very passage Jesus specifically addresses the temptation of people to think God punishes people by sending disasters! In response to a tower in Siloam that fell on 18 people Jesus says, “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”
Far from supporting John’s speculation about why a tornado broke a church steeple, it seems to me this passage directly assails it! It makes me want to ask John, “do you think that the folks at Central Lutheran church are more guilty than you or any others living in the Twin Cities?” And the only answer this passage allows us to give is an unequivocal “no!” In the fallen world in which we live, towers sometimes randomly fall; bridges sometimes randomly collapse; and tornadoes sometimes randomly do property damage – even to churches. That’s all there is to be said about it.
Rather than speculating about how God is judging others through natural calamities, Jesus tells his audience they should be concerned with their own relationship with God. “Unless you repent,” Jesus said, ” you too will perish.” Jesus boldly confronts our tendency to find a speck in another’s eye and our temptation to assume God is involved in their misfortune as we overlook the two-by-four sticking out of our own eye (Mt. 7:1-3). Instead, we should follow Paul’s example and consider ourselves worse sinners than others (1 Tim. 1:15-16) and concern ourselves with the judgment we ourselves will receive if we don’t repent and throw ourselves on God’s mercy.
It’s a warning I think we all do well to adhere to.