Soon after arriving in Sri Lanka, just two days after the catastrophic tsunami leveled village after village, I found myself confronting a very personally challenging question.
On the road south from the capital, Colombo, we drove past what was left of the Queen of the Sea passenger train on the way to the town of Galle. The train had been crowded, as any traveler on the sub-continent will find familiar, with around 1,500 people packed into the cars returning to Galle for holy Poya (full moon) day.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but after two immense walls of water first ripped the train from the tracks, then hurled it like a toy further inland, there were only around 150 survivors.
When I arrived in Galle, home to a once-thriving tourist industry and a famed, but now destroyed, cricket ground, I was confronted by the stench of death from the many, many unidentifiable corpses, and by those left alive whose homes were destroyed, who had lost loved ones, and had barely escaped the waves.
As these Sri Lankans looked to the sea, which before the tragedy, along with tourism, made up 80 per cent of the town’s economy, those that could find words asked me “Why did this happen?” “Why is God punishing us?” Others just stared out blankly.
While I was with these suffering Sri Lankans, if I could offer one small hope, it was that both believers and non-believers from around the world would not forget them, not abandon them. And that this was where they could find a sign of God’s presence, in the form of the compassion and action by the world’s citizens and governments.
As I traveled back to Australia, I thought of the church’s history of grappling with the problem of suffering, the problem of evil, which divided theological responses to human evil and natural evil, or natural disasters.
Then a curious line from the film “Silence of the Lambs” came back to me. Hannibal Lector asks Agent Starling: “Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I am evil?”
“I think you’ve been destructive. For me it’s the same thing.”
“Evil’s just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it’s that simple. And then we have fire, and then there’s hail. Underwriters lump it all under ‘Acts of God.'”
The clever dialogue between Starling and Lector created by Thomas Harris (the novelist) and Ted Tally (scriptwriter) illustrates two points. First, that evil is a problem not only for the church, but one that psychiatrists, sociologists, geneticists and criminologists have yet to fathom. Secondly, this exchange reveals that we have long ago given up on the idea of God as the direct author of rain, hail and storms. Though ancient traditions saw rain as a sign of God’s blessing, Jesus made plain that the rain falls on the honest and dishonest alike–so too, one could add, do hurricanes and tsunamis.
We live on a globe with a fragile ecological and geological balance. A few degrees change in the global temperature and millions will perish. The tsunami was a very natural disaster, not an Act of God punishing the world for its materialism, violence and selfishness; not a judgment on the sex trade in Thailand or the civil strife in Sri Lanka or the rebels in Aceh.
With all its terrible and catastrophic consequences, the tsunami was predictable and is explainable. Continental plates grind against each other, producing earthquakes and sometimes tidal waves. It is a disaster that has a history and such disasters will happen again.
In fact, if there were some direct relationship between morality and natural disasters, as was once thought, it would make God out to be an unconscionable bully to the coastal poor and a chief benefactor of cities such as Zurich, Palm Springs and Paris. And it would also make a mockery of Jesus’ teachings about the special place for the poor in the heart of God.
God’s power is not like our desire to move and shake the world. In each situation it seeks to save what is lost, liberate what is in chains, heal what is broken and lift up those who have become tired. God is a burden carrier. And it is a privilege that we have the opportunity to work in solidarity, compassion and restoration with those whose burden is greatest. Consequently, I believe that Acts of God are not the disasters themselves but those of the people who reach out in compassion to the victims of such tragedies.
But like everything in life, the tsunami of 2004 calls for a response and interpretation. Too often natural disasters more deeply affect the poorest of the globe; those whose dwellings are the least stable; those whose access to clean water, sanitation and medicines is the most tenuous; those with the least ability to receive disaster warnings and act accordingly.
And much of the suffering following natural disasters is exacerbated by poor planning, inequality and bad economics. In some of the South East Asian countries affected by the tsunami, coral reefs have severely deteriorated and many have had up to half their mangroves destroyed. While these are bi-products of greater tourism and prawn fishing opportunities, the downside has been a greater vulnerability to tsunamis and a horrific loss of life.
Similarly, while cheap energy has produced greater economic growth, global warming and the resultant catastrophic weather changes could roll back all of these benefits in a generation. And the tsunami we have just witnessed may become the first of many great natural disasters of the 21st century.
These are factors in our power to change, not responsibilities we can pass on to God.
The immense aid effort and generosity on all levels from all over the world has revealed the best of the human spirit. The phenomenal response reminds us that human solidarity and compassion for all people is the essence of human life and survival.
Where was God on 26 December 2004? I’m wary of anyone who would profess an answer to this unanswerable question. But I will suggest that God was very active in the hearts and minds of millions around the globe after this event. The pain and trauma of those in the hundreds of places like Galle will continue for many, many years to come. But they will now find partners in that pain. And, hopefully, those burdens that can be shared, will be.
Tim Costello is former president of the Baptist Union of Australia, a general council member of the Baptist World Alliance, and CEO of World Vision Australia.