Posted: 2018-09-20

The God of some Christians is not a very pleasant character




IN 1773 William Cowper, the English poet and hymnodist, wrote a poem/hymn entitled Confict: Light Shining out of Darkness. It’s not well known by that name but its first two
lines are familiar enough: 

“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform”.

From what we know of his life, Cowper was not entirely convinced by his own verse. Riddled with doubt and depression, he spent time in a private asylum. During a later period he thought he was doomed to eternal damnation. The poem only hints at the darkness and suggests that we put our trust in God’s wisdom in the face of life’s troubles or inexplicable events.

It fails to mention the flood where God was so angry with humankind that he decided to drown everybody bar one family and some animals. Or the plague that God sent on the Pharaoh and his household. Or that God killed everyone (men, women, children, infants, newborns) in Sodom by raining ‘fire and brimstone from the Lord out of heaven’. And God says that it's okay to beat your slaves; even if they die you won't be punished, just as long as they survive a day or two afterwards (Exodus 21). The cruelty in the Old Testament inflicted by the Deity knows no bounds. All are strangely absent from Cowper’s poem.

Of course, it depends on your vantage point. If you come out on top then indeed God is performing wonders by removing obstacles to your success. For example, it is bemusing to see sportsmen praying to God for victory. Dwayne Bravo thanked  “Almighty God; without him nothing is possible”, after the West Indies had won the World T20.  How odd of God – the all-powerful and all-wise controller of the universe – to give a damn who wins a cricket match. That He should busy himself with such trifles instead of ending starvation, genocide or malaria is mysterious indeed.

There are people who believe that disasters are God’s punishment for wrongdoing. After the Primark fire in Belfast in August (above), the Rev Colin Houston told Sunday Life that it was not a coincidence because it came just a month after the store had a pro-LGBT display in its front window for Pride Week. “God is not mocked”, he said, “they had two windows exploiting this and telling people to come in and buy their clothes”.

Houston received support from Donald Morrison from Inverness in a letter to the Belfast Telegraph on 18th September. He claimed that exactly the same thing happened in June, when a blazing furnace engulfed the famous Glasgow School of Art. He added that the fires are “a powerful demonstration that God will not allow anyone to defy his authority, mock his laws, blaspheme his name and then brazenly imagine they can get away with it”.

The God of Houston and Morrison is not a very pleasant character. In any case, the idea of a deity who uses fire to punish homosexuality derives from a misunderstanding of the story of Sodom in the Bible. From archaeological records, we know it was also a common practice in the Near East during ancient times to use homosexual rape as a way of humiliating enemies. When victorious soldiers wanted to break the spirit of their defeated opponents, they would “treat them like women” by raping them. The practice was not driven by sexual desire, but by brutality and hatred toward the enemy. Rape or other forms of sexual abuse is not consensual sex but physical humiliation of the ‘other’ and happens today just as it did in ancient times.

It is this motivation, not homosexual desire, which stands behind the sin of Sodom. Perhaps the men of that city feared that the two angelic strangers were spies. Perhaps the fact that Lot, himself a recent immigrant, had taken them in served to heighten their suspicion. Whatever caused their panic, a mob mentality took over, and before long the people of Sodom were at Lot’s house clamouring to brutalise the strangers. So this is a story about attempted mob violence, not homosexual desire.

The moral is more generally a condemnation of the mistreatment of those who are most vulnerable, including strangers. Is it not ironic that the misinterpreted story of Sodom is now used by some Christians like Donald Morrison to justify condemnation of another vulnerable group — namely gay people?

And what about God’s mysterious way in these far from wondrous circumstances? Ah, but we earthlings are not capable of understanding the ineffable mind of God. His goodness is something more all-embracing than what we mean by that quality. Indeed, it is so all-embracing that it includes what we consider bad. Ah, but He gave us free will and the evil is all our doing. Really? The floods? The hurricanes? The famines? The earthquakes? The volcanic eruptions? The bone cancer in children?

James Baldwin was right when he wrote in The Fire Next Time (1963), “if the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him”.


Brian McClinton, 19th September 2018