A brief reflection on the tsunami and
matters of faith and belief
by Dr Des Parker
We've been bombarded every day with stories and images about the effects of the tsunami in Aceh, Shri Lanka, India and other areas, all seeming too unreal to be real…but they are! Its like bad dream…but its reality! How do we make sense of this?
How do we reconcile these events with the message of Jesus…that God wishes for all of us: love, joy, peace, hope?
We want reasons…someone or something to blame…we don't like the loose ends of uncertainty. Yet that is the reality of life. We live in 'greyness' where many of the decisions that we have to make are not clearly black or white. It is important for us to live with the grey areas and be comfortable with them. Otherwise we can become anxious and weighed down with worry because there are so many things that we are unable to know for certain. Many of the decisions we make are where the good outweighs the bad. And that's the best that we can do. Speeding to take someone who is desperately ill to hospital where no ambulance is available is a good example. If we stick to the speed limit it may endanger that person's life. If we speed and are caught in a collision that will also endanger the person's life and perhaps the lives of others involved in that incident. What are the risks, what are the benefits? This is what we often have to weigh up. Not easy decisions because we are dealing with possibilities and maybes.
One of the questions that comes to our minds, although many are reluctant to voice it openly, is 'why did God let this happen? This question assumes that we think God's role is to prevent such things happening. Let follow this idea through. Is it God's role to prevent a single person from being hurt or dying? If not, where do you draw the line? Should God intervene when there are 10, 50, 100, 1,000 or more people likely to be seriously injured or die? Logically, if we believe that God should intervene in a single case then that's the end of serious (how do you define serious) disease and death.
But if God is all powerful and this is his world shouldn't he act to stop catastrophes like this? This question, and the previous one represents a view of God as protector, not allowing harm to come to anyone. We can't argue that he protects those who are faithful to him and not others, because the deaths resulting from the tsunami are indiscriminate. Hindus, Moslems, unbelievers, Christians, people of other faiths most likely liberals, mainstream and fundamentalists from any of these faiths were all represented in the death toll. The Old Testament writers attributed everything to an act of God. That is how they tried to make sense of their world. When things were great, God was blessing the people, when things were bad God was punishing them. Old Testament ideas were not quite as simple as that but it’s a reasonable overview statement.
Jesus was quite clear in his statements that the Old Testament people had got it wrong. He was definite that a person's illness was not a sign of God's punishment for their sin. He was most critical of how the wealthy used their wealth, and this was in the context of a society which believed wealth was a sign of God's blessing. Boy, did that upset people's attitudes and thinking…especially the rich! There are many aspects of the Old Testament understanding of God and his action in the world and of Jesus teaching about this also. We do not have time to touch on these further today.
So where does all of this leave us in our attempts to understand? I found three articles in the daily papers very helpful in my thinking. They were: 'A call to all Australians', by Tim Costello; 'Be prepared for the next disaster', by John Schauble and 'Is God to blame for this?' by Kenneth Nguyen. These articles appeared in The Age on Wednesday 29th and Thursday 30th December, 2004.
Tim recognizes that in the face of this colossal tragedy that has hit some of the poorest people in the world, and while we cannot make sense of it, it is drawing us to act 'in solidarity with our neighbours'. 'This is an act of hope and faith', he says, 'it is not arbitrary or self-seeking…it is based on our common humanity, our shared vulnerability in the face of human finitude.' At times when the world has seen enormous human tragedy the 'best of human compassion and generosity is released'.
John gives an account of the number of human disasters that have occurred since 2001 and he claims that they will get worse 'without government interventions, social and physical planning on a global scale.' He claims that the doubling of the world's population between 1960 an 2000 has meant that people are settling in areas that were understood to be too risky. Some of the world's largest cities lie in hazard zones. Many of potential problems and risks can be overcome. As John states: 'Harnessing the political, social and economic will to achieve this - as ratification of the Kyoto protocol has shown - is far easier said than done.'
Kenneth questions how those who believe in an interventionist God can avoid the question of why didn't God intervene to prevent this disaster. Surely if God is an interventionist God, he argues, this disaster is proof that he does not exist, choses not to act, or is vengeful in his action. Kenneth's statements are enough to make you sit up and take notice! So we come back to where I began. Kenneth is questioning the Old Testament understanding of God and God's action in the world. He has not taken up the revelation about God that Jesus taught and showed us. Where he quotes scripture to support his argument he take a very literal approach to meaning.
Both the Old and New Testament show us that God has never left his people. Even in the depths of despair, exile, famine, slavery, God gave the people hope. In the same way that we are assisting those devastated by the tsunami, God says to them and us, I will not abandon you.
Read the biblical passage from the book of Matthew, chapter 2 and verses 16 to 18 where Herod kills all of the males 2 years and younger because he wanted to be sure and kill Jesus. The devastating effect on the mothers, families and community was enormous. But God's people, the Israelites were part of a larger picture and drew consolation from an understanding of God as a God of love and though individual events may not seem to make sense at times, they do form a picture that contributes to the coming of the kingdom of God. And this is precisely where faith and belief are clear and predominate.
As we move further into 2005 with
its promise at the beginning of a new century, 'we hear the good news once again which is for all people - that God who
made the heavens and the earth does not abandon us even to the destructive power
of the elements but God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Flesh of our
flesh and lives among us sharing our human vulnerability.' Rev Peter Armstrong.
At Christmas 2004 the Rev Peter Armstrong wrote:
And for all of us - God is with us
in our worry and concern, in our shock and grief,
in our feelings of being a long way away from the people and places we love
in our feelings of helplessness
and God is with us in many tangible acts of goodwill and solidarity as we come together as a community and support one another at a time like this.
This season of Christmas reminds us then that the light shines defiantly in the darkness and the dawn will break and the shadows will flee away. This is our comfort, our inspiration to do something to help and this is our hope and our faith today.
So let us express this faith as we offer both unspoken and spoken prayers - the light shines in the darkness We are not alone. Our God is among us.'
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' He replied: 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God, that shall be better to you than a light and safer than a known way.'
Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957)
Part of King George V Christmas message in 1939