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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Earthquake, Tsunami and God
distributed 12/31/04 - ©2004

Many years ago, a youth leader in my church was killed in the crash of a small airplane. As the kids in the church youth group struggled to make sense of that tragic death, many of them gave voice to a theology they often heard from their conservative Christian friends. "God called him home," they said.

An Air Force chaplain who was a member of the church quickly set the record straight: "God has better ways of 'calling people home' than slamming them into the ground at 160 miles per hour." The chaplain pushed the church youth to think more deeply about human accountability and the reality of chance, and to be slower in blaming God for what they can't understand.

Tragedy and suffering are theologically difficult when you believe that God is intimately involved in every detail of our individual lives. On the other hand, "God" becomes theologically difficult when God is seen as powerless or disconnected from the events of the world. In between those two extremes, theology and ethics become difficult when the tension between God's involvement and disengagement is taken seriously.

Last weekend's violent earthquake in Sumatra, and the enormous tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean, are causing many people of faith to raise difficult questions. As I reflect on the events of this week, I am aware that an eco-justice perspective gets in the way of simple answers, and calls us into that very difficult place of tension.

Because eco-justice rejects any simple division between the human and the natural, because it sees God revealed in the natural order that we affirm as "good," because it calls us to wrestle with matters of faith and ethics that go beyond the personal to touch on institutions and systems -- for all those reasons, an eco-justice theological perspective is both wonderfully appropriate and painfully difficult at a time like this.

Without attempting to be comprehensive, let me draw on that perspective to offer some theological affirmations and convictions that are appropriate for this week's news.

First and foremost, this situation calls on all people -- people of all faiths, and those without faith -- to act on their most basic notions of compassion and solidarity. For most of us, who are far from the disaster scenes, that action means giving money to relief efforts. Loving prayers of compassion that don't also include significant giving simply won't cut it. Your denomination, Church World Service, or the Red Cross will make efficient use of your donation. This is the core ethical matter. Do it.

Beyond the immediate funding of relief efforts, we get into more philosophical territory.

  • God did not cause the earthquake and tsunami in some premeditated fashion to punish the wicked, to warn us of the impending end times, or to call the survivors into deeper compassion. (There are writers who have suggested each of these.) If we grow in compassion and relationship as a result of this tragedy, that is a blessing for us and the world. But God has better ways to nurture compassion than killing hundreds of thousands of people.

  • The intentions of God, and the workings of nature, are not all about humans. The whole universe is not centered on our experience. The Earth existed long before humans came on the scene, and it will be here long after we're gone. As we ponder the meaning of this event, we must do so in light of the entire history of this planet, and in the context of the entire web of life.

  • Awe and humility are appropriate responses to the immense power of the created order. Just as we can be inspired to awe when we consider the size and age of the universe (see Psalm 8), we may also be inspired to keep our own significance in perspective when we look at geologic forces -- slabs of rock that shift with enough force to make the entire planet wobble, and ocean waves that travel thousands of miles at jetliner speeds and arrive with enough power to demolish cities.

  • There are limits to the human ability to control the forces of nature. We can never make the world totally safe and predictable. While reasonable steps to live with nature are good and appropriate -- making use of the best possible designs for earthquake-resistant construction, for example, and employing good sanitation to reduce the spread of disease -- attempts to completely control nature, or to pretend that we can stand outside the forces and relationships of nature, are misguided and guaranteed to fail. Our theology and ethics must help us live as a part of the natural systems of this world.

  • The scope of this event pushes us outside of our normal moral categories. There is no human cause behind the earthquake and the waves. The destruction has killed and displaced rich and poor alike -- although, of course, the long-term effects will be hardest on the poor. There are not, apparently, any gross failures or abuses in providing available relief and aid -- only the inability of local, national and international systems to respond adequately to such a widespread catastrophe. Blame and fault, sin and evil, are categories that just don't fit here. Rather than pointing fingers at others, we do better to acknowledge our own limitations.

  • It is in the long-term projects for rebuilding that we must work toward our best understandings of justice for all involved. Let us seek to establish societies that provide care and empowerment for the poor. Let us rebuild with a commitment to the most sustainable societies.
Theology is easier when we believe that God is either totally in control, or utterly powerless. As people of faith, though, our goal is not to have a simple and tidy theology, but to have a theology that is honest and insightful in the most challenging situations.

In this time of great human disaster, may we first of all seek to meet the urgent and long-term needs. Then, in our faithful musings, may we not shy away from hard questions and challenging demands. For in that place of tension we will find real faithfulness.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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