Charley and Job
One often comes across stories in the news in which someone has a narrow escape and, talking to a reporter afterwards, thanks God for sparing him. This is obviously an admirable sentiment, but it often includes something along the lines of “I guess God was just watching out for me.” And when the background of that statement is, say, a car crash in which everyone else was killed, one can’t help taking a few steps down the logical path to which such statements point, and which ends with another statement: “I guess God was just not watching out for those other people.” Or, perhaps, “I guess God just decided to kill those people, but not me.”
Now, on some level incomprehensible to us, those last two statements must be true, or else we are in some pretty bad theological territory: that which is, so I’m told, traversed in the best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which apparently resolves the paradoxes of divine omnipotence and human free will by denying the former. I don’t intend to touch this particular theological knot; the book of Job is enough for me: “Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out.” Still, there is something a little unseemly about the survivor’s assertion that he was saved by God while the others were abandoned, unless he follows it with the recognition that God must have had some purpose in preserving him and that his life henceforward ought to be considered as being always at God’s disposal.
To those of us who live on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from the tip of Florida all around to Yucatan (and, presumably, the northern coast of Cuba), hurricane season presents a moral dilemma. Once a hurricane starts charging around in the Gulf, it is almost certainly going to make landfall somewhere before it dissipates, and one can’t help thinking “please don’t let it land here”—which is only the converse of “please let it land somewhere else,” that is, “please let those people in Florida or Mississippi or Louisiana or Texas or Mexico, not me, have their homes damaged or destroyed.” One may modify this instinctive prayer and say instead “please let this storm disappear,” and this is obviously a much nobler wish, but when the storm is a hundred miles away and is not only not disappearing but growing stronger, and the clouds are moving in and the wind is picking up—when one is, in short, staring down the barrel of the gun—few, I think, can honestly say that they do not wish the storm to visit their neighbor rather than themselves.
Hurricane Charley devastated parts of Florida’s west coast last Friday. When it entered the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm a week or so ago, it looked as if it might go anywhere. But a cold front moving in from the west pushed the storm eastward to the Florida coast. Beginning on Wednesday or Thursday and continuing through the weekend, we had unseasonably wonderful weather: cool, cloudless, and dry, a breath of autumn in what is ordinarily the uninterrupted sauna of our coastal summer. While a dozen or more people lost their lives and thousands lost their homes, we had a beautiful weekend which didn’t just coexist ironically with the storm but actually contributed to its landing where it did.
Were we blessed, and if so why? Was Punta Gorda, Florida, cursed, and if so why? Neither and both, I think: we are all cursed and living in a world which from time to time seems to make war on us; we are all blessed and living in a world which from time to time smiles on us. Nature has a wildness which operates in the physical realm somewhat as free will operates in mankind, producing unpredictable and undeserved results, which, while known and understood by God, are inscrutable as to their justice or injustice. To insist that we have sorted out these rights and wrongs is to court the judgment of Job’s comforters, of whom the Lord said “My wrath is kindled against thee…for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right.”