I met this young lad years ago (I think) at a National Youth Convention. His late father spend some time with me discussing matters of ranging from cell churches, metachurches, small groups to more personal aspects of ministry. The last conversation I had with his father ended with an invitation by him for a cup of tea before the accident that took his life. I’m not sure whether this slightly personal connection made me want to read his response to the question “Was God in the Tsunami?” even more. I was really interested with what’s going on in his head and heart here. It’s also refreshing to listen to a younger thoughtful Malaysian who’s studying at a seminary in the USA wrestle with this with words.
I’ll just let his piece – “I Don’t Know”–Faith, Hope and Love in the Wake of the Tsunami speak for itself.
Let me be frank. I have a lot of ideas, some of which might actually be good, about why a good God would allow human, moral evil in the world. I’ve talked, debated, and discussed that particular problem into the wee hours of the morning. I spent four-hundred pages in a yet-to-be-completed thesis re-reading the Adam and Eve story hoping to shed light on the origins of human sin. But in the face of natural disasters like the tragic tsunami that wiped out over a hundred and fifty thousand human beings like us: living, breathing women, men and children who eat, pray, fart, go to work, fall in love, have sex, raise kids, and watch shooting stars at night, I simply have no answer to the philosophical questions. Why would a good God not intervene to prevent a disaster like this? Why did God not send Gabriel to ease the tectonic plate out? So that the two geologers who paid any attention to that particular region wouldn’t notice something supernatural going on? If there were any geologers paying attention to that particular plate, we wouldn’t be here right now, and so what if some stray geologers happened to notice something weird going on, maybe they might realize what was happening and become theists.
Moreover, I can’t accept natural disaster theodicies–a term which etymologically mean defenses of God’s justice–that blame Satan, blame the victims, or blithely quote Isaiah 55:9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” out-of-context. (The context of that verse is actually an invitation–probably given to the returnees from the Exile–to seek God and depend upon him, for the evildoer to abandon her ways and to bow before God.) I find these kinds of responses to the tsunami deeply disturbing. How exactly did spiritual warfare get into the picture? One of the most important Old Testament themes, from Genesis 1 on is a polemic against any view of nature as divine. Any idea of spiritual beings who are not God having power over nature, powers that in the Bible are reserved solely for its Creator, are an anathema. As for proponents of the view that in sees the victims of such tragedy as deserving recipients of God’s judgment, I would like to see them advocate that when it is their community that is swept away without warning. I have only Jesus’ words for them, “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them-do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:4-5, NRSV). Unless you see these innocent victims as people like yourself and seek to love them in practical ways, you to will perish. As for the last “theodicy,” it depends upon how exactly the person means it–I will in a sense appeal to something like that myself, as does God in Job–but the way I’ve often heard it used, it is not as theodicy at all, but as copout. Many Christians who can’t explain something or are in a logical corner tend to use it to simply reaffirm the obvious–that they were right all along and you were wrong.
So why didn’t an all-powerful, all-knowing, and good God, the kind of God I believe in, send an angel to ease out the plate? Three words so hard to come–by in our era of smug religiosity: “I don’t know.” I don’t know why God allowed the earthquake in Iran two years ago (2003) to kill 30,000 people; I don’t know why he allowed 30 million people to be displaced in the last major flood in Bangladesh (2004); I don’t know why he didn’t do anything to prevent the tsunami last week; I don’t know why a God chooses to hide his face and hands when natural disasters occur. On the pew, at the altar, and on my bed every night, I cry with the psalmist, “Why O Lord do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1, NRSV). Where are you oh my God when dams break, rivers overwhelm their banks, tectonic plates shift, and hundreds of thousands lose their lives? Why do the innocent perish with the guilty? Why do the wicked prosper? Where are you dad, where are you?
In times like this, the answer that provides me the most comfort is one that echoes through two thousand years of history, an answer important enough that they ages of history are split between the before and the after. Where is my God? I believe that two thousand years ago, on a cold winter’s night in a musty stable, in a tiny town on the outskirts of a backwater province in the sprawling Roman Empire, the Son of the Most High, descended into the crude frame of a common carpenter’s son. The One whose glory surpasses that of ten thousand suns chose to make himself outrageously vulnerable, frail, mortal. God himself became one of us, a man who breathed our air, ate our food, wept, barfed, drank lots of wine, and did all kinds of weird and wonderful things. Jesus Christ, the Jesus of history, was a shockingly irreverent carpenter that dared to call God “daddy,” a human being who dared to even think that he was the new prototype for humankind, a social, political and religious revolutionary who challenged every human being, symbol, power and institution to enter an era of the inbreaking power of God transforming the world into a place of righteousness, love, peace and equity, here and now, an altogether disconcerting, disturbing, and uncomfortable individual to be around–when you understood any of his cryptic sayings at all. And then, as we continue to do with people who make us uncomfortable, as any good conservative set of human beings would do, they nailed him. And so in the greatest scandal this universe has ever known, the Creator of the universe was tortured to death by his very own. Where is my God? He is on the cross. He is suffering along with the people in Acheh who right now have no access to clean water, food or shelter. He is mourning over every person made in his image swept up by the tides. He is weeping with every father, mother and child who has lost someone they love. Emmanuel has come; my God is with us in every hell-hole of human misery, pain and suffering.
But this story, the story I see as mine did not end there, the God I believe in is not just with us in his nail pierced, but metaphorical, hands, my God is with us because he is also in us. Atheists and Christians alike keep on asking about where God is today. I firmly believe that when one of us stands before our God, points her finger and says, “Where were you God in the tsunami?” With tears flowing down his cheeks, I believe he will say, “I was right there. But where were you, and where was my body?” This is one of the deepest mysteries of my Christian faith. I believe that the third person of the Godhead lives in each of us who call ourselves Christians. We who call ourselves by the name of that Jewish carpenter are called by him to be God to the world: not a spoil-sport Zeus wielding lightning bolts, or a sleepy grand daddy in the sky of Far Side, but little gods and goddesses whose hearts bleed for every abused child, every teenage prostitute, and every person lost in the darkness of drugs and alcohol. We who call ourselves Christians are to live the life of the new kingdom, to seek justice, peace and equity for all creation, to love all with a sacrificial love, to challenge every corrupt human institution and structure that allows sweatshops, inner cities, child labor, brothels, discrimination in the workplace, and does not care for the underprivileged. In Christian terms, we are simply to be the body and blood of Christ, taken, broken, and blessed in this needy, broken, world. Moreover I believe that many others who do not confess a creed embody Christ in their lives and actions, as well or better than those who do. Christians are not exactly of one mind about how to regard such people–sadly we are hardly one mind about anything these days–but I say with the apostle James “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith,” (2:17).
We Christians have been often dismissed as polyannish. If God’s grace was present for that one family who survived, does that not also mean that God’s grace was not upon the other 150,000 people who died? But to affirm that God’s grace was on the survivors, and to simultaneously eschew the idea that he ignored the rest is in a sense exactly what our faith is about. There are at least two worldviews with which to approach disasters like this: The world is nothing but atoms and the void, a random set of chance events, and we must just make the best of it. There is a God who suffers with us, who weaves everything, even our individual lives, into his ultimate purposes, a god who embraces all that is good and hates all that is bad. We may never be able to prove, to the evidentialist’s satisfaction, one view or the other, but like it or not our lives are affected by our choices-even the decision not to choose. Those of us who believe in such a God believe that all our actions have purpose and meaning. We believe that our stories do not end here, that they are captured within the narrative of the universe which God, the ultimate storyteller, will tell on the great and glorious day of his appearing. We believe that there is hope of a world without suffering, without tears and without pain, a world without earthquakes, floods, mudslides or tsunamis, a world where no one will ever be seen as inferior because of their ethnicity or gender, a world where the widow, the orphan and the local immigrants are embraced in our communities as human beings, a world where the politician will work for the homeless, and the lawyers will defend the cause of the underprivileged, a world where the abundance of this earth will be distributed to all as they need, a world where God shall reign enthroned in justice and righteousness over all and in all. We believe that everything we do now, every tear we cry with another, every moment we spend serving food to those orphaned by the tsunami, every bead of sweat we shed as we rebuild their homes, and every dollar we give to the people in Sri Lanka, Aceh and Thailand find meaning and fulfillment within that story, the one that God is weaving as we speak, the one which finds its grand denouement in justice and equity for all. And so in hope and faith, we continue to love.
In the final analysis, I don’t know why natural disasters continue to cause such tremendous human suffering; but I do know that I haven’t found any better path through this life than the one lived and taught by Jesus of Nazareth. While I cannot reconcile such inexplicable pain with the goodness of God, I find comfort in the fact that he did not try to explain it away, but bore it instead, all the way to the cross. What we Christians should be criticized for is not that we are polyannish for that is, to a degree, part of what it means to be a Christian. Instead we must be censored, no condemned, for when we have failed, and continue to fail to love our neighbors, whether in inner-city Los Angeles, Bangladesh, Iran, Sri Lanka or Acheh, as much as we claim that Christ has loved us. Till we do so, the world has every right to mock and jeer at those who claim to follow Jesus Christ of Nazareth, but look just like or often worse then the most apathetic of our neighbors. In all our questioning, all our seeking, all the heartbreak we feel at the trials and tribulations of creation, despite the fact that to the ultimate metaphysical questions we have to say “we don’t know,” what it means to have faith is that we continue to cling to all that is good and eschew all that is bad. So yes, that means that we Christians embrace every mercy, every blessing and every grace as from God, but stubbornly refuse to attribute all that is evil and unfortunate to him. That is what it means to have faith in a good God. If in so doing we seem a bit polyannish, well so be it. To ask us to stop attributing all that is good to God and refusing to see all that is bad as coming from him is tantamount to telling us to stop believing. Furthermore because, as I’ve been trying to show, for many of us who are Christians all the good we do flows from what we believe, it is really telling us to should stop hoping, stop having faith, and stop loving both in our hearts and in our actions. Faith is never more faith than when it comes up against the paradox of horrendous suffering in the world and continues to embrace the way of hope, faith and love.
Whether or not we agree on why we help our fellow brothers and sisters; whether we do it out of purely humanistic reasons, or flowing from a life of faith, we all agree that the immediate needs right now far outweigh our metaphysical quarrels; so I too propose a truce. May we never shy away from discussion, dialogue and debate in the name of tolerance; but when there is no time for such luxuries, in the name of Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Kant, Mill or Sartre, let us comfort, feed, clothe and house these people who have had their families torn apart by the tsunami that in time they may be able to piece together their hearts and their lives back together. Let us work side by side, hand in hand, fellow human beings seeking to love fellow human beings.