By Any true soccer fan can explain “The Hand of God.” Go back to Mexico, June 22, 1986, to the semifinal World Cup game between England and Argentina when the goal came in the 51st minute. Diego Maradona, either the third, second or best player of all time, deliberately hand-tipped the ball over to goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Argentina went on to win 2-1 (Maradona scored a second goal, dubbed “the goal of the century”) and then defeated Germany for the cup. Maradona described his first goal as “a little bit the head of Maradona, a little bit the Hand of God.”
So, does God’s hand intervene in human affairs? Until quite recently, no postdiluvian Christian theologian has seriously doubted it. The Acts of Apostles, that most history-like New Testament book, binds the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost together such that one divine event explains the other two … and the church was born. Acts goes on to describe miracles, including eerily spontaneous deaths — for example, of Ananias and Sapphora (5:1-11) who broke the law and then lied about it (some things never change). There’s even an angelically abetted jail break (12:1-12).
Similarly, since at least the Great Deluge, natural events also have been treated as auguries of God’s will. Once, boarding a ferry from Brendisi to Patras, I had to sign a waiver exonerating the company from any responsibility for any “Act of God” which, in legalese, means any natural disaster (still part of Tort Law in the U.S. and elsewhere). Let’s refine the question: Did God cause Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma?
Uncannily (because unintentional) a student of mine put it in the words of Job (2:10): “It isn’t fair,” she said, “to give God credit for good things if we don’t accept the bad things, too.” Pause there for a moment: can we say that to the parents of Aylan Kurdi, whose toddler-refugee body washed ashore on Sept. 2, 2015? Can we say that about the 70 people killed by Harvey and the 49 killed by Irma? What did they do that was so awful? Or were they, not God’s target, but something like collateral damage?
Pastor Kevin Swanson said that God was punishing Texas for failing to pass an anti-transgender law. Ann Coulter finds it more plausible than climate change that it was God’s punishment for having elected an LGBTQ mayor (in 2009 and who was term-limited in 2015). Kenneth Storey, (now ex-visiting professor at Tampa), called it karma for Texas’ conservative politics. But why not just kill the mayor or the capitalists or the legislators? Does God have such a fat thumb that “he” can’t be more precise than a “smart bomb?”
Let me be blunt: God does not cause harm: not through nature, not through history. To paraphrase the theologian Forest Gump: “nature is as nature does.”
Now, to be nuanced, insofar as God is the creator and insofar as creation acts blindly in certain ways which, if it were a human agent, would be heinous but which are integral to the sustenance of all life, then … in the most remote sense of the word, yes. That is God, Darwin’s God, but yes, God. Natural disasters aren’t disasters in nature, but only when humans are harmed, and then it is we who are tested, not them.
God’s hand does not kill — not even those who (we think) deserve it. Yet God’s hand is evident — when guys hitch their boats to Houston to fetch folks from flooded homes; when nurses and doctors and pharmacists stay at their job even when their own homes are drowning. When a cop (Steve Perez) dies trying to get to work; he is not being punished, he is a hero. We are God’s hand when we lend it to those in need during human-caused tragedies and natural disasters. The only question, not really answerable and not particularly important right now, is whether Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are instances of the former or the latter.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)