The Trouble With a Cause-and-Effect God
Delegate Bob MarshallÍs comments on disability stirred a stormand revealed a gap in our view of how God works.
In the story “Disabled Children are God’s Punishment” dated September 12, 2012, Virginia radio station WTOP reported that state delegate Bob Marshall had declared disabled children to be God’s punishment to women who have aborted their first pregnancy.
According to WTOP news, a radio station in Virginia, Western Prince William Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th, “made that statement last Thursday at a press conference to oppose state funding for Planned Parenthood.” The article stated,
“‘The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children,’ said Marshall, a Republican. ‘In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.’”
The WTOP story was picked up by the traditional media and spread rapidly via social media.
Unfortunately, the WTOP story contained several errors. The press conference in question took place on February 18, 2010, not in September 2012. The Virginia Christian Alliance covered the press conference in depth in February 2010 and made a video recording of Rep McDonnell’s statements available in their coverage.
Marshall’s wife Catherine has issued a clarifying statement regarding the story on Rep. Marshall’s website in an undated blog post. She says that her husband’s words were taken out of context and paraphrased and that, to the contrary, Bob Marshall “believes that every child is a gift from God regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth or stage of life.
Catherine Marshall continued,
“My husband never said that disabled children are a punishment from God for abortion! He does not believe that at all. He was simply reporting the results of medical studies finding that first pregnancy abortions can cause problems in later pregnancies, including low birth weight, which can cause medical problems for children.”
Given his wife’s statement and the chronology of events, it is debatable that Rep. Marshall made a Westboro-esque correlation between disabilities and abortion at all.
This story, and its contradictory coverage, demonstrates a number of challenges presented by social media and the speed at which information spreads today. Christians are under a microscope, and Christians have a reputation for simplistic thinking about suffering, sin and judgment. The natural posture of the watching world is to assume the worst, not the best.
The view that it is God’s judgment when a child is born with disabilities to a woman who previously had an abortion, is nothing new. In Ancient Israel, people understood disabilities in the very simplistic cause-and-effect manner described here. If someone was born blind or deaf or deformed, the cause must be sin. Job’s friends accused him of the same thing, saying that the tragedies that befell him must be the result of his own personal sin.
Yet Christians today can interpret these passages in light of the New Testament as well as the Old. In John 9:1-3, Jesus blatantly rebuked this cause-and-effect mindset. Encountering a blind man from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Jesus’ responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned … but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 1:3).
Jesus does not equivocate. He states plainly that disability is not the result of sin. And when Christians read His response, it becomes evident that the alleged statement of Rep. Marshall cannot be given any credibility.
The Message paraphrases this story with an interesting angle. When His disciples ask who sinned to cause the man’s blindness, Jesus replies,
“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
Jesus says that asking who is to blame for suffering is the wrong question. He says that our response to suffering and disability should be to ask, “What are You doing, God?”
Asking “What are you doing?” is a more expectant and hopeful version of the question, “Why?” It acknowledges that God knows. God sees the suffering and the struggle, and God is not passive. This question anticipates God’s action. It may not be healing or restoration, it may not be relief. But God is there, and God is working in and through the people to co-opt that tragedy and redeem it.
This is not to say that God caused the disability or the illness, or that these things are not tragic. That is another form of simplistic cause-and-effect thinking about disabilities.
Christians must guard against pat answers like “God is in control” or “Such and such good things happened because of this, so it is good.” These may have a grain of truth in them, but the message they convey to a mother of a disabled child is that God is the cause of her child’s pain and that her pain is invalid. She hears these words as saying that what is bad is actually good. That is neither true nor godly.
This is the kind of language Christians should use for disability—language of compassion and of hope, language that acknowledges the suffering intrinsic in broken bodies and anticipates what God is going to do.