Thursday, January 21, 2010


When something terrible happens, the natural human tendency is to blame someone.  That’s the root of the deceptively simple question, “Why?”  The feeling is not so much that if we can discover who is responsible for the tragedy we can punish them and perhaps prevent it from occurring again—although that is certainly part of it—but more the feeling that such knowledge will help us understand something that is so inexplicably sad.  We don’t like the inexplicable; things that we don’t understand need to be explained, answers found, root causes exposed to the light.
The devastating earthquake in Haiti is the type of event that gives rise to a multitude of explanations; the sheer magnitude of the tragedy causes all sorts of people to give all sorts of answers.  Of course, the “Why” question is not going to be satisfied by reference to tectonic plates, fault lines, and potential energy.  The explanations we are hearing aren’t coming from scientists.  They are coming from religious figures like Pat Robertson, who declared that the earthquake was the result of Haiti making a pact with the devil to practice voodoo; from economists who blame economic policies for creating widespread poverty which made the human toll much greater among the poorer classes than among the wealthy; and sociologists, who have said that Haiti’s class system made the devastation much worse than it needed to be.
Nobody is satisfied with the most obvious and perhaps most accurate explanation: that bad things happen that destroy life.  Of course, that is less explanation than observation, but the world is like that.  Some things just can’t be explained.
In 1755 Portugal suffered a horrible earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, started fires that raged across the city, and unleashed tidal waves that created even more destruction.  While theologians and philosophers debated the “why?” of the earthquake, the marquis of Pompal, King Joseph I’s prime minister, said, “What now?  We bury the dead and feed the living.”  And that is what he led the nation to do, and within a year Lisbon was recovering.
The proper response to disaster is action, not theological and philosophical reflection.
There are Christian organizations who responded immediately to provide help and relief to Haiti: The Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Catholic Relief Services, Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Episcopal Relief and Development, the Salvation Army, and many others.  Other religious groups responded as well, including American Jewish World Services, B'nai B'rith International, and Islamic Relief USA.   And of course there are many, many secular and governmental agencies that are hard at work, led by the Red Cross, but also including the United Nations, Beyond Borders, Doctors Without Borders, United Way Worldwide, American Refugee Committee—this list is long, exceeding over 20 organizations that I could find.  And people of all races, religions, and ethnicities are donating to these and other organizations.  They are doing something.
It’s borders on the obscene, however, to classify these responses, as I’ve done, according to religious terms, as if there is such a thing as a Christian response, a Jewish response, a Muslim response, or a secular response.  No, no, no.  There is just a human response.  This is the way it is supposed to be.  Christians, Jews and Muslims spend far too much time fighting each other, arguing who is right and who is wrong, and all three taking on the forces of secularism, atheistic humanism, yada yada yada.  When disaster strikes, all that stuff has to go out the window and we all have to respond, cooperate, and work together.  To do any less is sub-human and subverts whatever truth-claims any of us would espouse.
Sure, one might say, in times of crisis we put that stuff aside and work together temporarily, but in normal times, when there is no crisis….  Well, normal times for whom?  Tell the more than 12 million children in Africa who have been orphaned by war or AIDS that there is no crisis.  For them, crisis is normal.  The human slave trade is a $12 billion annually industry; more than 2 million children are exploited in the commercial sex industry—aren’t these crises?
I am sure that these things sadden God, and that he really doesn’t care who does something about it as long as someone does.  I’m pretty sure that he wants us—all people—to stop debating each other and to work together.  And I’m sure that when we do, it makes him happy.  He might even call it the Kingdom of God.

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