Journalists love the unusual: "Man bites dog" stories are big. So how should reporters have reacted to a Minneapolis surprise last month?
Facts: A convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in August voted to ordain as clergy noncelibate homosexuals. No severe weather warnings were in place, and no tornado had come into downtown Minneapolis for a long time—at least 90 years, according to one archivist. Nevertheless, as delegates met, a tornado damaged the roof of the Minneapolis convention center where they were meeting and knocked the cross off the host church next door.
In subsequent days I read a spectrum of reports about the event. Here's a quick survey of coverage, moving from right (certainty of God's righteous action) to left (any mention should be left out, because it's certain that any god that might exist would not act in this way):
• Minneapolis pastor/author John Piper produced Bible-based news analysis of the kind standard in 17th-century journalism. (In 1681 a general meeting of Massachusetts ministers urged careful coverage of "Illustrious Providences," including "Divine Judgments, Tempests, Floods, Earth-quakes, Thunders as are unusual . . .") Citing Christ's analysis of the fatal fall of the Siloam tower (Luke 13), Piper wrote that "the tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. . . . Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners."
• Blogger (and former UPI religion editor) Uwe Siemon-Netto called the ECLA meeting "shameful" but did not conclude absolutely that God sent the tornado. He wrote, "I could not help grinning: This was truly Old Testament-style: God sometimes uses nature to make a point. Of course you will have to believe in these things in order to grasp their ramifications. If on the other hand you accept Biblical truths only selectively, as did the majority of the Minneapolis delegates, then this incident could only have been a random occurrence—you know: as random as the beginning of the universe."
• The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the news and noted one interpretation, with a raised-eyebrow "even": "Some conservatives even saw signs of divine anger when a tornado touched down on the Minneapolis Convention Center just hours before the vote." The Associated Press also reported the incident, but in a more sardonic way: "A few jokes about God's wrath proved inevitable. 'We trust that the weather is not a commentary on our work,' said the Rev. Steven Loy, who was helping oversee the convention."
• The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported the tornado but downplayed it: "The storm largely escaped the notice of the 2,000 Lutherans involved." (Hmm . . . Julia Duin of the Washington Times noted that "inside the center, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson read the 121st Psalm—which talks about God's loving care—to the nervous assembly.")
• The New York Times was at the extreme left: It left out any report of the tornado, even though it ran two stories totaling 1,462 words and concluded the second with words from a pro-gay-ordaining Lutheran pastor, 'Let's stop leaving people behind and let's be the family God is calling us to be.'
Where would you be on the spectrum? Where am I? Piper is right: God controls the winds, so any tornado is a warning to all of us that we do not control even the next hour of our lives. We need to be careful about citing tornado hits or misses as proof of God's specific disfavor or favor: Episcopalian prelates who approve sin should not rest easy because their conclaves have not caved in. In WORLD we avoid stating as fact that which cannot be proven from the Bible or from careful observation, but we do not follow the Times in ignoring remarkable providences.
That the Minneapolis tornado did not kill or seriously injure anyone is one more instance of God's miraculous mercy and persistent patience. The Bible warns us all, so we should not need tornados—but sometimes we do. Thank you, God, for not giving us what we deserve. Help more of us to grab hold of Christ so that we do not reap the whirlwind, in this life or the next.