The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) sent $320,000 from last year’s One Great Hour of Sharing Offering and by early February had surpassed its goal of raising $2.5 million for tsunami relief.
As international leaders and scientists attempt to understand the causes of such a tragedy and begin to study ways it could be avoided in the future, there is, however, theological speculation making the rounds that is adding to the suffering. Comments being made by some Christians are hurtful and they need to be addressed directly because they are not as uncommon as we might like to think.
Someone asked me the other day, for example, as she was about to write a check to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, if it really were the right thing to do. Actually she already knew the correct answer but she just wanted to make sure. “After all,” she said, “I understand that most of the people in Indonesia and other countries are Muslim. Should we be supporting them?” My answer was unequivocal and she agreed with it. “Regardless of whether they are Muslim or not, they are human beings to whom we owe mutual humane obligation. What is more, they are all children of God and God agonizes over the suffering and death of all people everywhere.”
A second question was even more difficult. She wondered if a natural tragedy like the one that killed more than 150,000 people in moments is somehow the result of God’s wrath against a sinful and unfaithful world. My answer again was direct and to the point. “Absolutely not. God does not need to send messages to us like that. Who would want to believe in a God who acted in such a heinous way?”
But it not just people in small cities in upstate New York who speculate in such a way. “Is this God’s judgment on Indonesia?” some ask. My response: Why resort to archaic thinking about appeasing an angry God in the midst of this very 21st century tragedy? Theology like this is no more comforting or helpful than the advice of Job’s so-called “friends” when he lost his property, family, and reputation in God’s bet with Satan. Eliphaz puts it bluntly when he implies that if you suffer you must have done something so wrong that God has no choice but to punish you. Job did not buy it and neither should we.
It is not only insurance agents who refer to catastrophes as acts of God. So do Christian believers. They do so because they need such a thoroughgoing Theism that they cannot imagine anything happening in the world that is not ultimately caused by God. For them it may be the only spiritual comfort they can muster, even if it suspends reason.
And it is not only Christians who think this way. According to a recent article by Amy Waldman, Buddhists in Sri Lanka have developed a “private moralizing” beneath a very public compassion in which survivors speculate that the reason they were not swept out to sea has to do with their strong faith in the Lord Buddha. Similarly Din Syamsuddin, a leader of one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim institutions, said that the people of Aceh have accepted the tragedy as evidence of God’s “disapproval and a divine examination to test their faith.”
But what is happening here? Why is it that people want to return to the austere faith of Noah’s Ark? Even in the ancient Genesis text God promises not to try that solution again.
What kind of theology is this? Why do believers of any religion want to assume that God had anything to do with a tidal wave caused by the sliding of two tectonic plates near Sri Lanka?
If we are honest about it, we will admit that no religious group has a corner on primitive nature religion or Stone Age theology in the face of natural tragedy. In our own congregations we hear the same kind of rationalizations: It is too bad that the baby was killed in a car wreck (mudslide, overflowing river, murder- suicide), but someday we will understand God’s reason for letting it happen”. We try hard to comfort ourselves, but we only end up heaping more agony on Job’s suffering.
Do we live in 2005 B.C. or are we residents of the 21st century? We know very well why tsunamis occur and they have nothing to do with divine action.
Are we sophisticated enough to leave God out of our theories of causation and accept the unsettling thought that God is mainly to be seen as the one who suffers with us through (rather than creates) natural disasters? Let us be those whose hearts go out in the name of Christ to the suffering, who push for prevention in the future, who dig deeply into our pockets in compassion and concern. But let us never align ourselves with those who make the torment worse by providing statements of faith that are as false as idols.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is the pastor of First church, Johnstown, N.Y.
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