Theology Thursdays: Storms As Wrath Of God? by Selwyn Crawford

After Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, an e-mail from a former Grapevine, Texas, evangelist caused a storm of a different sort around the country.

It contained an eerie "prophecy" from the evangelist, Kim Clement, who claimed to have predicted at a meeting in Houston in July - more than a month before the hurricane - that doom and destruction would be visited upon New Orleans for its "transgressions" against God and his people.

"O New Orleans, God speaks to you from Houston tonight and says enough of this," Clement said.

"For a judgment is coming ..." And while "men that have stood in faith" would be spared, Clement predicted, sinners wouldn't be so lucky: "Bodies will even rise and they will come forth on the water..."

In the aftermath of Katrina, Clement wasn't the only preacher to assert that the hurricane was an act of retribution by God. Many conservatives who hold that view regard New Orleans as a city of depravity, a place that not only tolerates but welcomes gamblers and prostitutes, hedonists and homosexuals.

"New Orleans flaunts sin in a way that no other places do," said the Rev. Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

"They call it the Big Easy. There are 10 abortion clinics in Louisiana; five of those are in New Orleans. They have a Southern Decadence parade every year and they call it gay pride.

"When you study Scripture, it's not out of the boundaries of God to punish a nation for sin and because of sin. When I look at our country, at what's happening, and what's happening in New Orleans in particular, it's not beyond the realm of possibility."

There's an audience in America for the view that God uses natural disasters to punish evil - notwithstanding that most religious leaders and scholars reject the notions espoused by McKissic and like-minded conservatives.

"I'm not sure that we can say that New Orleans is any more wicked than Paris or Los Angeles or New York or even Dallas," said Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor of the Potter's House.

"There were children who died. Innocent babies who died. Aged nursing home patients who died. To say that God is judging New Orleans and that these people died and some felons escaped, I personally have a problem with it.

"I think what people should do is focus on God's love and mercy. ... To point a finger in the faces of people who are burying folks and say, `This is why they died,' I don't see that."

Clement, who has moved his ministry to California, declined through a spokesman to be interviewed.

Even the hurricane's name, some argue, is a sign of God's handiwork. Katrina is a variant of Katherine, which comes from the Greek for pure.

McKissic, who is known for his anti-gay views, appeared at two political gatherings in Texas after Katrina and said the hurricane might have been sent by God to rid the nation of its sins, including homosexuality.

"This may have nothing to do with God being offended by homosexuality. But possibly it does," he said.

A spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also attended the events, was quoted by the Austin American-Statesman as saying: "The governor does not agree with that. But far be it for the governor to try to divine the will of the Almighty."

McKissic later said in an interview:

"They openly practice voodoo and devil worship in New Orleans. You can't shake your fist in God's face 364 days a year and then ask, `Where was God when Katrina struck?'"

The Rev. David Crowe, executive director of the conservative Christian group Restore America, agreed.

"We've known for decades and longer that New Orleans has been a place where immorality is flaunted and Christian values are laughed at," said Crowe, whose group is based in Oregon.

"It is the epitome of a place where they mock God."

The belief that divine wrath was at work in New Orleans isn't limited to conservative Christians.

Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, spoke in Dallas last week and called Katrina - along with Hurricane Rita - punishment for America's warmongering and racism.

"So my family, God is angry," he told hundreds at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church.

"The judgment of God now has entered America in a way that is going to get worse and worse and worse. ... God is whipping America, and he's whipping us."

Earlier in Houston, Farrakhan said: "Maybe God ain't pleased. Maybe this caste system that pits us against each other has to be destroyed and something new and better put in its place."

The comments of Clement, McKissic and others are reminiscent of statements by the Rev. Jerry Falwell after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On a religious TV show, he blamed "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians ... the ACLU, People for the American Way" for the attacks. "I point the finger in their face and say, `You helped this happen.'"

He later apologized, saying his observations were "insensitive" and "unnecessary."

Bishop Jakes said the negative reaction then should have been a lesson to today's religious leaders.

"As ministers, our time would be better utilized to help the victims," he said.

"It's not that I don't believe that God judges wickedness. He does. But I'm not sure he explains to us why he does what he does."

Bishop Jakes and his church have been at the forefront of efforts to help those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He visited Louisiana at President Bush's side and addressed a prayer service in Washington for those affected by the disaster.

"I have learned, in the soon-to-be 30 years that I've been in ministering, to stick to the Scriptures and leave what is in the mind of God to God himself," he said.

McKissic said that for all his talk of God's retribution, he does believe that victims of the hurricane deserve compassion. His church has donated $200,000 to the evacuees. "When they got off the bus, we fed them," he said.

Still, he added, sin cannot be overlooked, just as it wasn't in the biblically damned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Bishop Jakes, however, said many people miss a key point in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"God always brought the righteous out before he destroyed the city," he said.

Selwyn Crawford can be contacted via e-mail at:

Note: This article first appeard in The Dallas Morning News.

Thursday, October 6, 2005