Faith and Disaster: Why Me? Why Them?
"Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Genesis 18:25 ESV
When something horrific happens, how do we explain it? Does our faith give us the words to articulate our understanding of justice and mercy? The ability to express who God is and how we understand humanity?
Using 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake as her focus, the Rev. Dr. Renée Hill is offering a hybrid (online and in-person) course at Seabury this fall that examines disasters from a theological perspective. Students will do their own theological explorations of the Christian response to disasters. They'll examine how to think about the theological implications of disasters and theology in the church and in the community, about who we think is worthy of love and justice and who is not, and where God fits in to it all.
"All three of those disasters had rich theological comment and commentary that we will examine," Hill said. "Through all of the politics and popular talk—especially with Katrina and Haiti— there was a lot of discussion about 'why those people' deserved to be punished. That included the race, ethnicity and economic class of those affected. People construct their own theologies as to why disasters happen. We need to learn to articulate how we talk about justice, mercy, freedom and evil. We need to help people think about the messages that we're getting and what we want to add to the conversation."
“Faith and Disaster,” which is taught under the heading "Contemporary Issues in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church," consists of online work Sept. 6 through Dec. 14, with an onsite class Dec. 9–10. It is a 3 credit or CEU hours course.
The course builds on a class Hill taught in 2008 at Drew University Theological School in Madison, NJ, entitled "Race, Environment and Faith in a Post-Hurricane Katrina World." That class left her wanting to delve deeper into the impact of faith on the response to disaster and to listen more closely to what is not being said.
"I always look for what is happening in the silence and what is happening in the absence," Hill said. "Who is not there? Who is invisible? Who is not being heard? I think about the floods in Iowa, and there wasn't the same kind of theological condemnation as I heard about Katrina. Why are we seeing a disaster as punishment in one place and not the other?"
In addition to the course at Drew University, Hill has taught at several other seminaries, including Union Theological Seminary and Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, and The Episcopal Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. She is serving as an interim priest at St. Augustine Episcopal Church in New York City, where she lives with her partner, the Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke, who is also an Episcopal priest, and their two children.
In the Seabury course this fall, Hill said she hopes to help her students engage in critical thinking that allows them to respond effectively to disaster and to differing theological perspectives that accompany them.
" You need to know who you are arguing against," she said. "For example, you need to look at polarizing theological views, like those of the Rev. Pat Robertson of the 700 Club broadcasts see where he is coming from, and then develop a careful, thoughtful response. We need to emphasize that theology is a tool for social change. Religious views have the power to shape popular views as well at policy in response to disaster in both overt and covert ways."
Hill repeatedly goes back to her goal of providing people with critical thinking skills that allow them to express their faith and how it applies not just to disasters, but to everyday life.
"I used to work in a congregation in which we had people who were literally rocket scientists, but when you'd ask them, Who is God to you?, they had a very hard time expressing their beliefs. I want to help people become reflective enough to think about who their God is and to articulate their views with a combination of openness, flexibility and well thought out conviction."
To register for the class, click here.