Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth Everybody

By Marjorie Ingall

Published October 07, 2005, issue of October 07, 2005.
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As a mom, and as a person of faith, I’m struggling to figure out what to tell Josie about Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the year, but especially around the High Holy Days, we ponder life and death, justice and mercy. Katrina — the hurricane and the human response to it — gives those issues special immediacy. But while some of us are still trying to formulate the questions, others are fortunate enough to have all the answers.

A group called Columbia Christians for Life has just pointed out that Hurricane Katrina, on weather maps, looked exactly like a 6-week-old fetus. This, they say, is clear proof of God’s divine retribution against Louisiana’s abortion clinics. The Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans, opined that God, in his mercy, was purging New Orleans of “the sodomites [and] the witchcraft workers.” And just as you don’t have to be Jewish to love Lender’s Bagels, you don’t have to be goyish to be sure of God’s will! Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-right Shas party, said that Katrina was George Bush’s punishment for supporting the Gaza pullout.

So while I really want to tell my children whom to blame for Katrina, I’m baffled by all the contenders. The one thing I’m certain of: It’s important to blame someone. The first lesson of parenting is, of course, that it’s always the other kid’s fault. When my child clocks another preschooler and takes her My Little Pony, it is obviously the fault of the other child for bringing the My Little Pony to the playground. Or for letting my child see the Pony. Or for waving the Pony in a seductive manner so that the aquamarine mane twitches too alluringly. When my child does poorly on a test, it is because the teacher is a bad teacher or the grading system is unfair. And when something seemingly incomprehensible happens, like, say, my child’s grandfather dies, it is essential that my child know that God knew what He was doing. I don’t tell her, “We don’t know why bad things happen, but we try to do good in the world and comfort each other,” or “Let’s share wonderful memories of Zayde and do nice things that would make him proud of us” or “The world can be baffling and scary, but our responsibility as loving people is to try to heal its pain and pick up the pieces”! What kind of crazy talk is that? I tell her that Zayde was too good for this world and God took him to live with Him in heaven. I realize this may cause a 3-year-old some anxiety: If she’s “too good,”

will God snatch her from her bed? Are there Build-a-Bear stores in heaven? But this cannot be helped.

I digress. My point is this: I need to know who’s right: Columbia Christians for Life, the Rev. Bill or Rabbi Ovadia? Which sin is Katrina punishment for? You’d think that God, being God, would be clearer in his messaging. Nevertheless, I want God to know that I’m happy to help Him spread His message, as soon as He tells me what it is. Therefore I send this message unto God:

Dear God,

Can You please check off a box?

__ I am punishing My people for not listening to My will on abortion.

__ I am punishing My people for not listening to My will on Gaza.

__ I am punishing My people for not listening to My will on the gays.

__ I am punishing My people for not listening to My will on the baby seals.

I throw that last one out there because, God, I note that that fetus-shaped shape on the weather map alluded to by the Columbia Christians for Life is actually way more baby-seal shaped. Was that Your will? Look at the little extra seal-nose-shaped bit below and to the left of the eye! Come on! That is so a seal. Is Your point that the hurricane is divine retribution for not listening to Greenpeace? Are You punishing us for clubbing the baby seals, or for not clubbing enough baby seals?

Let me know. You can IM me.

Your pal,

Marjorie

PS. I decided not to make “none of the above” one of the choices, because while I know some people think “we don’t know why bad things happen” is an okay answer, You and I both know that’s crazy talk! Smite those people for me! Thanks!

In case anyone is having trouble here, as sometimes happens with this column, the preceding paragraph used the rhetorical tool known as sarcasm. But in all seriousness, how presumptuous do you have to be to claim to speak for God? Did God’s face appear to you on a potato chip and tell you His will? If it did, did He actually identify Himself as God? Maybe it was Charlton Heston. (Hint: If the potato chip told you to buy more firearms, it was probably Charlton Heston.) Sure, some folks may say that if a potato chip is talking to you, it’s time to up the Zyprexa. But the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Which is precisely why it’s so chutzpadik to claim to know why bad things happen in the world. If God is both so powerful and so mean as to take out a beautiful city of people and jazz and wisteria and moss and wrought iron and sugared beignets, isn’t He capable of communicating His motives better than through a fuzzy image on a weather map that sort of looks like a fetus but also a little bit like Animal from “The Muppet Show?” Even if the people in New Orleans were the worst sinners ever, why wouldn’t God show them the same courtesy He showed the people of Nineveh, in the haftorah we read on Yom Kippur? The Ninevites (Ninevians? Ninnies?) got a warning to shape up, and when they did, God called off His wrath. Which annoyed Jonah, since his fire-and-brimstone promises of mega-destruction didn’t come to pass. Having a loving, compassionate and merciful God really sucks when you want to take someone out. But the ultra-right prefer to envision God as a sort of celestial thuggish minor rapper doing a drive-by.

For now, I’ve just told Josie that a big storm happened far away, and we’re giving money and collecting toothpaste to help people who lost their homes. “Sesame Street” helpfully reran a series of episodes from 2001, in which a hurricane destroys Big Bird’s nest and his friends all help him to rebuild it. So we talked about that. Sometimes bad things happen, and when they do, it’s important to be a helper. And when Josie and Maxine are old enough to ask the harder “why” questions, I’ll just have to say, “I don’t know.”

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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