The Baptism of Christ year A

God and Disaster - updated

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Some weeks ago our family went to see the film ‘The Day after Tomorrow”.   This film showed in graphic form one possible result of global warming.   As a result of the melting of the northern polar ice cap, large volumes of cold water moved southwards into the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans.   This created massive temperature imbalances, and led to three simultaneous mega-storms over the northern hemisphere.   These were like huge hurricanes, but producing snow rather than rain.   There was a rapid rise in sea levels followed by a sudden and severe freeze, as cold air from the upper atmosphere was drawn down into the eye of the hurricane.  


We saw New York first flooded by enormous waves, which surged through the streets of Manhattan, and then everywhere was covered in a layer of snow several metres deep.   Within a matter of days, vast areas of northern USA had become engulfed in a new ice age.


The size of the tsunami which devastated so much of the south east Asian coastline a week ago must have been similar to what we all thought was just a dramatic special effect in “The Day after Tomorrow”.   We have been told that in places it was ten or fifteen metres high – 35 to 50 feet – or more.   (As high as this church?)   The world is still trying to take in the sheer scale of the disaster – it is now widely accepted that as the total number of dead climbs to over 150,000, it may never be possible to know the final number of fatalities.   And then of course there is the almost inestimable cost to millions of others who were affected – the loss of whole families, homes, villages and towns destroyed, and thousands of people injured.


As the days pass, various commentators have been trying to assess what the disaster means for our understanding of the world and our place in it.   Some have been asking where God was when the tsunami struck.   The catastrophe raises again one of the most difficult of all questions not just for Christians, but for those of all religions – why did God allow it?   How can we believe in a God who created a world in which suffering and death can sometimes occur in such a random way, and in such horrific circumstances?


The chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out in a newspaper article several days ago that movements of the earth’s tectonic plates are an inevitable consequence of the way in which land masses, on the one hand, are formed, and expanses of ocean on the other.   The earth is as it is because of the movement, over millions of years, of different parts of its surface.   Indeed the planets themselves – such as the one on which we live – were formed as a result of massive forces, and it is only to be expected that these forces will continue to be felt from time to time.   This of course doesn’t give much comfort to those who have suffered from the effects of last Sunday’s earthquake and tsunami.   But it reminds us that the process whereby life was able to emerge at all has often been a violent and unpredictable one, with periodic casualties.  


The devastation in the Indian Ocean reminds us that we will always be at risk from forces far larger than we ourselves can generate, and that the power of these forces can be truly colossal.   At the end of The Day after Tomorrow, the President of the USA acknowledged that the massive flooding of the eastern seaboard, and the sudden onset of a new ice age, were tremendously humbling.   Last week’s   tsunami was similarly humbling, as we remember how limited our own powers are compared with the powers of nature.   But we must also remember that it doesn’t take a tsunami to raise the question of why innocent people suffer.   A child is struck down by cancer; a teenage girl is murdered; a family is killed by a drunk driver.   The God in which we Christians believe is not a God who always keeps us from harm – suffering and death are an unavoidable part of the world in which we live.   The tsunami should not present a new challenge to our Christian faith.


As an anonymous Jewish holocaust victim is reputed to have said, "I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when I am not feeling it. I believe in God even when he is silent".


On the other hand, however, the tsunami has shown how tremendous is the extent of compassion shown by people around the world, and their readiness to help.   Tens of millions of pounds have been raised in this country alone in just a few days.   Jonathan Sacks wrote that this is where God is to be seen at work – not in the disaster itself, but in the response to it. Jesus taught us to love our neighbour – we have seen the overflowing generosity of countless people who know that their neighbour is not just the person who lives next door, but their fellow man, woman and child on the other side of the world.  


All the same, our Christian response must also include learning lessons for the future.   The more affluent parts of the world – such as some of the countries which border on the Pacific ocean – are able to build their villages, towns and cities in such a way as to protect against possible earthquake damage.   It is possible to put tsunami warning systems in place, as countries like Japan have.   The world must now surely put large sums of money into a rebuilding process which will protect people as far as possible from a similar catastrophe in the future.  


But there is another lesson which is less likely to be learned with the same degree of energy.   This is that the world also has an obligation to the millions of people who die prematurely every year as a result of other causes.   Because these people do not die all on the same day, or as a result of one tremendous and headline-grabbing event, they are for the most part ignored.   For example:   around one and half million people around the world die every year from tuberculosis;   1.2 million from malaria; 2.8 million from HIV/AIDS; almost 4 million from respiratory infections; and almost 2.5 million from perinatal conditions (deaths around the time of childbirth).   Around 1.2 million people around the world die each year as a result of road accidents.   It may not be easy to hear this, but these numbers dwarf the numbers of those killed by the tsunami.


Earthquake protection systems are of course important, as well as tsunami warning devices.   But they are only one part of the picture – a picture which is of a highly unequal world, in which those who live in many of the poorer countries are far less likely to live long and healthy lives than those in the richer countries.   In this country, for example, the average number of years a person lives – life expectancy – is 78.   Compare this with various developing countries: India – 64 years;   Kenya – 45; and some countries where AIDS is rife:   Zimbabwe – 33; Zambia – 32; even South Africa – 48.  


Twenty years ago, the pictures of starving people in Africa changed the way the world looked upon poverty and hunger.   This past week, the pictures from Sri Lanka, India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and so on have helped once again to bring the peoples of the world closer together.   The task now is to translate today’s goodwill and compassion into long term change – through which the blessings of health, security, and long life which most of us enjoy can be shared with the millions around the world who can only dream of them.