Thursday, February 02, 2006

Divine Wrath and Earl

Recently, Pat Robertson took some heat for saying that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was Divine punishment for dividing the land of Israel. (He has since backpedaled from this statement, because hey, business is business). Muslims have also suggested that the stroke was a sign of Divine wrath: Allah's punishment for all the things Sharon has done for the past 50 years or so. Apparently, Allah has a substantial backlog.

I believe that this stroke is a sure sign of the Creator's punishment ... against elderly, obese men who take on one of the most stressful jobs on the world. Let's be realistic about this: Sharon is 77 years old. He himself said that he couldn't wear a bullet-proof vest because "they don't make them in my size." And the fact that he has to consider wearing a bullet-proof vest, at risk from both his own people's hardliners as well as from his country's many enemies, should give you some idea of how stressful his job is! Indeed, it could be considered miraculous that a man in his circumstances lived as long as he did without suffering a stroke. Could it be a sign of Divine approval? Perhaps the Creator sustained him this long so he could make the remarkable sacrifice of the communities in the Gaza Strip in the name of peace? And perhaps the creator struck him down when He did to spare Sharon having to see the overwhelmingly electoral victory of a party dedicated to expelling Sharon's people from the land where he was born?

But Robertson isn't the only one playing the Divine Wrath card these days. And it's not just for fundamentalists any more: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that Hurricane Katrina and the other hurricanes this year were Divine punishment for the war in Iraq. A variety of conservative commentators, on the other hand, say Katrina was Divine punishment for the country's immorality (abortion, homosexuality, Terry Schiavo, take your pick). Me? I think it was Divine punishment for living 10 feet below sea level without adequate levees.

Back in 2003, the Divine wrath card was restricted to religious fundamentalists, which probably explains why no one saw Divine wrath in one of its more obvious manifestations: the lightning bolt that struck actor Jim Cazviel and assistant director Jan Michelini during the filming of The Passion of the Christ. This is, of course, Divine punishment for standing in the middle of an open field on a hill in the middle of a lightning storm and holding up, or being affixed to, the nearest equivalent of a lightning rod.

And then there's Jerry Falwell, citing 9/11 as Divine wrath against homosexuals. The litany of stupidity that the Creator could have been punishing on 9/11 could fill an entire book. In fact, it did fill an entire book: it's called the Report of the 9/11 Commission. Let's just take my favorite example: punishment for the government failing to act on reports that foreigners were paying cash to learn how to fly a commercial airliner, but didn't want to know how to land it. I don't think the Creator approves much of that level of stupidity.

But those who have read the biblical book of Job know that Divine rewards and punishments aren't as easily discerned as some would like to believe. In the book of Job, a man suffers numerous personal setbacks, not because of anything he has done wrong, but only to see if he will maintain his faith when the Creator doesn't give him everything he wants. His friends and neighbors are quick to judge him, quick to conclude that his setbacks are a sign of Divine disfavor, but they are all wrong.

But why are rewards and punishments not obvious? Wouldn't the world be a better place if good deeds were always promptly and appropriately rewarded, while bad deeds were equally punished?

The traditional Jewish answer to this dilemma is free will: if the Creator smacked you down every time you did something wrong, you wouldn't have much choice in the matter, would you?

Consider the one of my favorite TV shows, My Name Is Earl. For those who haven't seen it: Earl is a petty criminal who learns about a simplified version of karma (a Hindu/Buddhist concept): if you do good things, then good things will happen to you; if you do bad things, it will come back to haunt you. He sets out to make right every wrong he has ever done, not because he wants to do good, but because his life is miserable and he thinks this will make it better. And in Earl's world, the rewards and punishments are very clear: he wins a $100,000 lottery that he doesn't deserve, and he promptly gets hit by a car and loses the lottery ticket. He cleans up a parking lot to make up for his past wrong of being a litterbug, and while cleaning he finds that $100,000 ticket.

It's very entertaining, but it is quite clear that Earl has no free will. His choices do not arise from his own moral center, from his own sense of right and wrong. Rather his choices are compelled by his awareness of immediate reward and punishment. He chooses not to steal because he knows that he will get no benefit from what he steals.

Traditional Judaism teaches that this is not what the Creator wants from us. He wants us to behave in a certain way not because of desire for reward or fear of punishment, but because it is the right thing to do.