Like many of his rightwing, conservative religious colleagues, the American pastor, televangelist and conservative commentator Jerry Farwell was never shy to spew some of the most controversial statements.
In one of his most controversial – some say outrageous – comments, Falwell, who died in 2007, once suggested that HIV/AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality.
“AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh’s charioteers. AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals,” he was quoted as saying.
Falwell’s comments were certainly a long way over the top. However, like the late American preacher, we have a tendency to quickly suggest that the very worst things that happen to us – particularly when we have difficulty finding answers – are God’s punishment for society’s sins.
The Old Testament is replete with examples of God’s wrath falling on “wicked” people or on those who stray from the straight and narrow.
Moses, who led the very Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, was prevented from entering the Promised Land because he disobeyed God. And who can forget the story of the notoriously sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed by “brimstone and fire” because of their wickedness?
Often, we refer to stories like those to support our positions that our people, our countries, our region, are being punished for straying.
It was therefore refreshing to read what a man of the cloth had to say about two of the worst hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated several of our neighbours to the north, the head of the Christian Union Churches of the Caribbean Global, Bishop Joseph Atherley, warned that “man’s own greed and his desire for more causes these types of things to happen”.
However, the goodly bishop was not suggesting that those countries were being punished by God for man’s sinful behaviour. Instead, Bishop Atherley was making it clear that our action was leading to climate change, which in turn leads to devastating storms like the two category five hurricanes we experienced in under two weeks.
“The denuding of the forests, deforestation, the heating up of the ocean, the heating up of the atmosphere generally – all of these things deriving from the development of industry and all of that development that is driven by greed without reference to the impact it has on the environment, I think that is part of it,” he said.
“Nature goes awry and ultimately whether God brings it, as some people would suggest it is judgement, or allows it that we would be taught a lesson and brought back to our own sense of mortality and dependence upon him and need for him, . . . at the end of the day man must recognize that he is totally at the mercies of God who he sometimes does not acknowledge.”
It was one of the most mature positions taken by a Barbadian church leader on such an issue.
Yes, climate change is a controversial issue, but we certainly cannot deny that we are experiencing some of the most violent storms in our lifetime. Category five hurricanes are not new, but they certainly have not been happening this frequently.
Bishop Atherley, by his pronouncement, even though he might not have intended to, dismissed any suggestions that our Caribbean neighbours are nothing but wicked.
In the Sodom and Gomorrah story, God promised Abraham he would not destroy the cities if there were 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 righteous people left. Anyone who believes that the hurricanes were punishment on evil doers and those who aid and abet them, would be suggesting that not a single righteous person could be found in Anguilla, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Saint Martin, etc. Clearly, this would be unreal.
Bishop Atherley also made a very critical point that we must not overlook. With Barbados having been spared many a dangerous hurricane, thank God – the pun is unintended – we have the tendency to insist that the reason we do not get hit is because God is a Bajan.
However, the church leader said it simply was not true.
“I don’t think it is anything like that. I think geography has something to do with it,” he said, while contending that when “we interfere with nature, we put things out of sync and some of these things result.”
These are wise words that we must take seriously. Before Dominica was devastated by Hurricane David in 1979, generations of Dominicans had not experienced a severe storm. The same for Grenada before Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
The fact is we do not know when our turn will come. Therefore, we cannot afford to be complacent, to believe it will never happen to us because God is a Bajan. Or worse yet, we will never be punished because, seemingly, there are no wicked people here.