Second of two parts
When the president of Turkey surveyed the wreckage of an earthquake in his country, one elderly woman wearing a black dress and covered with dust ran past security guards and demanded, “President! President! My family is gone! Why? Why?”
When a terrible disaster strikes here in our country, many also feel the urge to ask the same, but they never get to ask President Aquino because he is usually not around. He does not go to the scenes of devastation, least of all to the wakes of people he does not know.
Why? Why? The answers vary depending on one’s worldview, faith or lack of one.
Chance, karma, kismet, global warming
The nonreligious say disasters arise out of chance or bad luck. They happen without rhyme or reason.
In modern law, courts denote certain events as acts of God — like tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons and floods.
The encyclopedia of American law defines an act of God as “a natural catastrophe which no one can prevent such as an earthquake, a tidal wave, a volcanic eruption, or a tornado.” Acts of God are significant for two reasons: 1) for the havoc and damage they wreak, and 2) because often contracts state that “acts of God” are an excuse for delay or failure to fulfill a commitment or to complete a construction project.
A more contemporary and hotly disputed explanation for disasters like typhoons and hurricanes is that they are the result of global warming, aka climate change. Climate alarmists blame carbon emissions which, they say, are raising the temperature of the earth, leading to the rise of sea levels. But there has been no global warming over the past 17 years. The United Nations intergovermental panel for Climate change (UNPCC) has not produced any proof of global warming.
Religious worldviews are more interesting and fascinating
Hindus believe that disasters are the result of karma, payback for evil committed in previous lives. Karma is individual, not collective, but the cumulative karma of half a million individuals could perhaps send a typhoon careening toward a city or a province.
Muslims believe in kismet, the Turkish word for fate or destiny. When disaster strikes, it is fated.
Animistic and polytheistic religions offer another explanation; the people of a stricken place may have in some way brought curses on themselves from powerful gods. Perhaps a construction project irritated a river god or something, and perhaps attempts to construct hurricane-proof houses and buildings upset the god of the winds.
In Christianity, disasters result not from chance, karma or curses, but from God’s mysterious providence, which no one ever understands fully.
The Bible says God ordains everything that happens, but it also says we are responsible for our actions. Christians have many ways to handle this. It matters to them that for God all times are the present. He knows and ordains past and future, while we know only a little about the past and nothing about the future.
We are actors without a script, deciding moment by moment from our subjective perspective the direction of the play, even if from God’s perspective it is already objectively decided. We freely decide, choosing from moment to moment what to say and how to act.
Many Christians find the idea that God is in charge, a cheerful one. G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is cheering because within it, suffering, failure, and inadequacy arise – neither from blind chance nor necessarily as a part of punishment, but as the common lot of humanity.
What makes all this work is the experience of Christ, who knew what it was to be unjustly tortured and abandoned, to endure overwhelming loss, and to be crucified.
In the Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the central figure, Christian, regularly had grief followed by relief, and that seems to be often what God ordains.
Like the hero, Christians learn that if we expect life to go smoothly, we will spend much of it discontented, and we won’t come to understand God’s mercy.
What’s difficult to accept is that the road to contentment runs through misery. Christ came to earth not only to die but also to live amid rejection. His horribly painful death took several hours. It was terrible, physically, and psychologically, because of the rejections he experienced, rejections by friends, by community, by local religious leaders, by national religious leaders. Those were all means to the glorious end.
Analogously, we Christians are thankful for the difficulties that energize us, and also for all the days when no disaster occurs.
With everything that can go wrong in the world, with typhoons each year filling the letters of the alphabet, it’s worth noting not only that a bullet like Yolanda/Haiyan hit us, but also that other bullets missed and that Ruby was not so lethal.
Christianity bids us to approach disaster in a spirit of gratitude and understanding of God’s mercy.
Why should we assume good weather and good health? Why not be thankful instead for days of clear skies or gentle rains. Why think that the relatively few days of disaster are proof of either atheism or divine malevolence? Why not be thankful that God, as described at the end of the book of Jonah, is “a gracious god, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
I’m not worried, I’m just waiting
In its coverage of hurricane Katrina in new Orleans, the Washington Post profiled a 72-year-old man, who was among the victims. He had just become a widower, and he had to leave New Orleans.
He faced a future with no security. But he looked at the future with greater faith. He professed:
“Jesus said you’re going to have trials and tribulations. I’m not worried. I’m just waiting. I just put it in Jesus’s hands.”
It will take time before long-term improvement in his material circumstances becomes evident, if it does. But his serenity while others screamed already paid spiritual benefits.