The recent tsunami disaster in Asia -- which, as of this morning's count, has claimed 140,00 lives -- has prompted some serious theological questioning. Was God in This Disaster?
asks a very thought-provoking essay on Beliefnet from Rodger Kamenetz, the Jewish-Buddhist author of The Jew in the Lotus
. After a rather disturbing quote from the Talmud, and a more comforting one from the Dalai Lama, Kamenetz writes:
I don't believe that a mass disaster, in and of itself, tells us anything about God. I don't believe in a God who punishes through disaster. The disaster is. That is exactly the way I would understand it, without adding my own interpretation, without supplying a meaning or completing the sentence. The disaster is. The tragedy is. And I need to abide with it, and feel it, instead of seeking an answer, because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the children on the beach, and the father with the dead child in his arms.
There is no God in the disaster.
I think there is God in the response, in the human hearts of those who are feeling and responding to this, the families and neighbors of the victims, and the rest of us, the bystanders, and us, too. The whole world is feeling it.
I agree wholeheartedly that we can see the hand of the God in the response to the disaster, in the overwhelming display of compassion and support from people all over the world. (Two of the many fine organizations providing relief and assistance to the tsunami victims are the Rainbow World Fund
and Episcopal Relief and Development
.) And I agree with Kamenetz that we often search for meaning in such tragic events in order to distance ourselves from the victims. If I can find a reason for peoples' suffering, I don't have to deal with the suffering people themselves. The search for a reason takes us away from our hearts and puts us in our heads, trying to figure it all out.
But I don't agree with Kamenetz that "There is no God in the disaster." As a panentheist
, I believe that all things are in God, and God is in all things. So I do believe God was in the tsunami -- but that doesn't mean that God caused the tsunami. I believe God can bring good out of bad events, but it doesn't necessarily follow that God caused
the bad events in order to bring about the good.
The search for meaning in tragic events, or in the face of outright evil, is as old as the books of Job and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures. There will always be those who seek to find blame for disasters -- as Jerry Falwell did following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he said: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'" (Later, of course, Falwell "apologized
" and said he didn't really mean what he had said.)
Jesus himself was confronted with those who sought to find such blame, even from among his own disciples:
As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:1-7, ESV)
Jesus' disciples assumed, wrongly, that since this man had been born blind, someone must have sinned -- either the man (before birth?) or his parents. They had to find someone
to blame. But Jesus didn't buy into their blaming. He didn't have time to engage in finding blame but emphasized "working the works" of God who had sent him. In other words, action
-- compassionate response -- is what's needed, not blaming. Using the elements of the earth, Jesus healed the man. Jesus calls himself "the Light of the World" in this story, but elsewhere (Matthew 5:14-16
) he reminds us that we
-- all of us -- are the Light of the World. And we are all called to let that divine light within us shine forth, and to respond to events we can't understand with acts of compassion, not reasoning or blaming.
Many thanks to Kay McCall for sending me the link to the Beliefnet article.
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