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Disasters Remind Us of Our Common Humanity

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While watching a news report Tuesday morning of the aftermath of Monday’s catastrophic tornado in Moore, Okla., my wife and I received a call that a relative completed a long battle with disease during the night.
The images of a community and nation responding with grief and extraordinary help will merge for us with our family’s coming together in shared grief, sadness and support.

A nation, and even a local community, is made up of people with diverse, even conflicting, values that produce all kinds of stress and controversy; the passions that we embrace make it difficult at times for us to work together in pursuit of a common good.

But let a set of circumstances put us in touch with the things that are most basic to our shared journey, and we find ourselves transcending, at least for a time, those differences that so often define us the rest of the time.

Families, too, can reflect diverse perspectives on many issues and often face the challenge of how to talk about matters of importance to our common life.

In the context of loss to disease, accident or other misfortune, differences that often seem to matter so much tend to take second place to the bonds whose roots are far deeper.

In response to highly visible disasters such as Monday’s tornado, we are accustomed to hear from some quarters an interpretation that this is God’s judgment or God’s effort to teach us a lesson with regard to some real or perceived waywardness.

We’re also pretty quick to dismiss such proclamations as a reflection of someone’s theological agenda that happens to be confirmed by such an interpretation.

Even the insurance industry’s term “act of God” to speak of natural damage is well understood to be a figure of speech referring to an act of nature rather than a theological statement.

Fortunately, it seems to me, there is a lessening of the tendency to ascribe to God the use of disaster as a means for managing the world and its people.

Still, I wonder if history and our common experience might be a medium through which we can learn some profound truths about our lives on a much deeper level.

The eyes of faith that have given us the biblical testimony tend to see the events of history as the arena of God’s creative and redemptive work.

While there is always the tendency to ask, “Why is God doing this to us?” – implying a causative relationship between God’s intention and a particular set of circumstances – there is also a good reminder to ask, “What can we learn about God, ourselves and life in the face of this?”

I like to think that the heroism that emerges in response to the kinds of challenges we have seen in recent months – teachers and other school personnel shielding children, sometimes to their own injury or death; first responders rushing to assist victims not knowing whether another explosion is waiting for them; support teams providing needed relief supplies – is a better expression of who we are as human beings than the passionate advocacy of causes that are in the service of more superficial agendas.

I like to think that the answer to the question “Who are we, really?” is found on the occasions in which we express our common humanity, rather than the times in which we jockey for various forms of special advantage.

I like to think that we might learn from such observations a way of being that might operate in non-disastrous times as well, as we navigate the calmer waters of our collective life.

We can’t imagine anyone saying, “Why should I care about the people of Moore, Oklahoma? I don’t know anyone there.”

But, how easily are we less attentive to the slower burning disasters of poverty, educational deficiency, discrimination, disrespect, robber-baron economics and health care needs.

Does our comfortable and secure place in life lead us to say, “Why should I care about that? I don’t know anyone there.”

Do we need a catastrophic disaster every week or two to remind us who we are?

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.