Today, as parts of New Jersey and New York remain inundated by floodwater and the rest of the east coast begins the grim task of assessing and repairing the damage from Hurricane Sandy, our thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by this storm.
But as sure as dawn follows night, disasters on the scale of Hurricane Sandy never fail to bring conservative firebrands crawling out of the woodwork to rehash a despicable narrative that pinpoints some very specific sins as the cause of our current sorrows.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the accolades for fastest post-storm BS shoveling go to one John McTernan. The founder of Defend and Proclaim the Faith Ministries, McTernan announced yesterday in an "urgent call to prayer" that “God is systematically destroying America” through hurricane and flood for our nation's tolerance of homosexuals and our president's support (both candidates' support, actually) of the "homosexual agenda."
While McTernans' noxious claims feature the added novelty of evangelical anti-Mormonism and a flailing attempt to link this year's catastrophic weather conditions to his particular strain of Christian Zionism (in addition to the gays, of course), McTernan is ultimately peddling nothing new: a stale, fundamentalist rendering of individual sin that could not be less deserving of a place in any contemporary theological discussion, much less the national news cycle. But McTernan's claims have made headlines, and are thus contributing to a further consolidation of conservative religious narratives as the primary discursive currency following disasters like Hurricane Sandy. As hollow and ludicrous as his views may be, it matters in a very real way that narratives of the ilk McTernan provides are the ones that frame current media discussions of religious responses to these catastrophes, and of the ways we think and talk about sin.
Below is an old article, written one year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti and a few short weeks after last year's shooting in Tuscon, AZ, that explores these themes in greater detail. As I wrote almost two years ago, the reclamation of theological language and concepts, sin included, from conservatives and fundamentalists is a vital part of the work of progressive religious resistance to injustice. So let's talk about sin. Let's talk about what sin means in the 21st century. Let's talk about sin in structures and systems instead of in individuals. Let's talk about how we understand sin in relation to a planet we've pushed to its breaking point. Let's talk about sin in terms of the social, economic, and political realities that guarantee those most affected by this storm will be those already struggling under the burden of our nation's historic levels of inequity. Let's talk about the ways in which the ways we talk about sin might impact those who are consistently demonized and denigrated using religious language. But please, please let's stop talking about what sin means to people like John McTernan.
21st Century Sin: Changing the Narrative
Originally posted January 29, 2011
After hopefully laying some of the groundwork on the need for a contemporary progressive reconceptualization of sin, it’s time to look at some recent narratives of sin in the media and consider what the Right got wrong. Nothing brings Monday-morning moralizers out of the woodwork faster than tragedy. Even the most cursory glance at media coverage of recent humanitarian crises turns up a whole host of holy hotheads ready to explain away the calamity of the moment as God’s punishment for the sinful behavior of a particular, and often already demonized, group. But behind the dominant conservative narratives of sin, which treat many tragedies as some sort of divine retributive justice, lie the oppressive societal structures with which a more progressive understanding of sin is concerned.
Perhaps the most infamous of contemporary finger-pointing firebrands is Fred Phelps, whose Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church has earned the condemnation of folks on both sides of the theological and political aisle for their explicit protest signs (which range from inflammatory declarations like “God Hates Fags” to cartoon images of armed forces personnel sodomizing one another) and a penchant for protesting military funerals. Phelps was back in the news again recently for the WBC’s plans to protest at the funerals of the victims in Tucson, an outrage narrowly avoided by offering the WBC time on two local conservative radio shows in exchange for not protesting the funerals, including that of 9-year-old Christina Green. As previously reported, in the wake of the tragedy the WBC website ran a statement proclaiming:
”Your federal judge is dead and your (fag-promoting, baby-killing, proud-sinner) Congresswoman fights for her life. God is avenging Himself on this rebellious house! WBC prays for your destruction--more shooters, more dead carcasses piling up, young, old, leader and commoner--all. Your doom is upon you!”
Phelps' group has also linked the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to God's anger over the "lifestyle choices" of homosexuals in the United States and the permissiveness of our society, which purportedly sanctions such behavior. The decision to protest military funerals follows from the logic that God approves of the death of American soldiers for their protection of such an inherently sinful country and culture.
Despite Phelps’ attempt to corner the market on this sort of hate-infused rhetoric about sin, he is hardly the only social or theological conservative to blame the “sinful” practices of our nation’s LGBT community for inviting God’s wrath. Controversial fundamentalist pastor (and avid John McCain supporter) John Hagee received extensive media coverage for his repeated suggestions that a scheduled pride parade in New Orleans provoked the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. After a significant public outcry at this suggestion, and the presumably rather humbling realization that he himself might not be privy to God’s plans and intentions, Hagee recanted his claim. Jerry Falwell spread the blame for 9/11 around even more during a much-publicized appearance on Pat Robertson's The 700 Club, during which Falwell opined:
"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen.""
Along a similar vein, Pat Robertson managed to blame the effects of last year’s devastating earthquake in Haiti on a mythic collective deal with the Devil in Haiti’s distant past. According to Robertson's unique understanding of Haitian history:
"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."
As outrageous as some of these claims may seem, in many cases they represent a very real danger for the groups that they demonize, and a danger compounded by the persistent lack of progressive religious voices challenging the understandings of sin upon which they rest. Behind each example cited above lies a potential progressive counter-narrative in which unchecked societal sins like religiously sanctioned violence, environmental degradation, racism, and dehumanizing poverty either cause or compound moments of exceptional human suffering.
Particularly given the relatively high level of media attention garnered by conservative narratives of sin like those discussed above, progressives must begin to publically push back against these claims by highlighting the harmful structures of social sin lurking behind each conservative claim. By working to change public discourse around these harmful systems and practices, progressives can begin not only to reclaim the meaning and normative power of the language of sin from conservative religionists, but can actively help reduce the destructive potential of the systems and practices themselves by bringing them to the forefront of public consciousness in a way that already highlights their inherently destructive nature. While progressives must surely work to counter the dangerous narratives about sin that abound in our public discourse, even more so are we called to name and resist the sinful structures that underlie the narratives themselves. By bringing the power of our shared theological resources to bear on these problems, it is possible for us to blot the stain of injustice from the fabric of our society.