The image of God's presence in the near-miraculous landing of the plane in the river, with no loss of life and no serious injuries, barely registered with me. It angered a good friend who also received the email, but didn't know how to respond. Then when Flight 3407 fell from the sky over Buffalo Thursday night, she said to me: "People were quick to see God's role in saving that plane in the Hudson. Where will they say God was in Buffalo?"
While people are quick to assign God credit for the good things that happen to us -- heroic and skillful pilots, the ability to score a touchdown, the ability to earn a good living -- most of us are not quick to look for God's wrath in tragedies. There are some, of course, who see God's direct action there -- who think that God aimed Katrina at "wicked" New Orleans, that the poor somehow deserve to be poor, etc. What's more common is the view that our health, wealth and comfort, our relative safety, and American power are signs of God's special favor.
This is an old theological problem. Martin Luther criticized the "theologians of glory" who discerned God's presence in victory and blessing yet diminished the the importance of Christ's suffering both for and with us. Luther knew that a theology of glory would justify those looking to their own power and victory, but a theology of the cross, a recognition that God's true strength is revealed in vulnerability and even death, is truly good news to all of us who are weak and struggling, as St. Paul put it, with being unable to do the good we want to, and doing the evil we hope not to do.
It's easier to assume that outward blessings are signs of God's favor, and that sickness, poverty and disaster indicate God's displeasure. Years ago I talked with a hospital chaplain who told the story of her work with a mother whose young daughter was gravely ill. The mother belonged to a church whose theology preached that such sickness was a sign of sin, and the people of the church - including the pastor - seemed uncomfortable visiting and comforting her. Jesus confronted this attitude when he met the man born blind in John 9.
His disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?" (9:2, MSG)
This is not just a misperception by the religious establishment; the question is asked not by the Pharisees but by his followers. Christ turns the question on its head, challenging them to look beyond the outward manifestations of our well being that we attribute to God's glory into what God is able to do (which is headed, ultimately, to the cross).
Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world's Light." (9:3-5, MSG)
Sadly the "cause-effect" Jesus negates is very much alive for us. Just Thursday night at our Kairos book group were were noting that sometimes the people with the most passionate faith are those whose lives are transformed from the depths of loss, addiction, poverty and rejection. The most passionate conversions may be among those who start out farthest from the church and faith. As Lynette said, "when things are going well, who has need of a savior?" We had some discussion around Suzanne's suggestion that Christians sometimes still look more at a person's works than their faith. We sometimes see God's presence more clearly in healing one person than in accompanying another through illness and death. We may find God less able to work through "unrepentant" homosexuals than through those who choose to gossip. Jesus' claim that he came for those who are sick not just those who are well sounds as strange to us as it did in his day.
When we rely too much on God's glory, we are looking for God to act as we do; to value and reward what is important to us. We desire to be rich, to be healthy, to avoid suffering, so of course that is how God would show favor. And those things are blessings. But if we want to get at who God loves, we have to look beyond glory to the cross, specifically to the foot of the cross, where we gather with all God's people -- the sick and the healthy, the poor and the rich, the afflicted and the comfortable -- who cry out to him for peace.
So where was God in Buffalo? I believe God was in and under Capt. Sullenberger's coolness and skill passing over optional landing zones for the receptive surface of the Hudson, and with the flight crew of Flight 3407 as they struggled to right their rolling craft without time to utter a "Mayday!" I believe God both weeps with that families of the 49 who died Thursday night and celebrates the gift of life for the 155 who walked off of Flight 1549.
Since this question is often asked in the face of tragedy, I raised the question to some friends on Facebook and Twitter. Here's some of what they said:
- Stuart said that "Because obviously 'God loved those people more' wasn't really helpful...I think someone called that 'sloppy theology.'"
- Maggie noted that some taunted Jesus with this belief as he was dying: "If you are God's Son, come down off that cross and save yourself"...
- Christine acknowledged that "we are rather selective in where we see God - only when good things happen. We cannot imagine God in the midst of pain suffering and grieving with us. Only see God when we are rescued from our pain."
- @Somecomic said that "god is with the families. not a preventer of tragedy but a bearer of pain and a giver of strength."
- @ReverendAndo said that "God was where expected: with the people on the plane. Cross isn't about personal safety it's about God holding us in the worst."
Oh, and how do we share the cross with people who are only looking for glory? @Somecomic to the rescue: