Pinning the Blame For Nature’s Wrath

In the ill-wind-that-blows-no-good department, special consideration should be given to the American politicians photo-opping their way through the catastrophic sadness of Southeast Asia.

Due recognition ought to be given to the ghoulish discussions on TV about how the death and misery of so many presents the United States with a chance to beat back Islam and hike its numbers in the Indonesian popularity polls. The raise-and-see-you poker game being played by the major powers as they try to outbid each other in emergency-aid announcements has been accepted as genuine altruism by people who ignore the old saw that, in world politics, there is no such thing as charitable interest, only national interest.

However, the help offered by individuals around the world (religious missionaries with hidden agendas always excepted) has been as broad and often heroic as it has been touchingly genuine. Just when an extraterrestrial might have given up and gone back to its home planet in disgust, Homo sapiens surprises. But while the news media have featured stories about helping hands and amazing survivals, they have steered clear of the touchy question of finding meaning in the occurrence of the terrible tsunami. Big, public communication webs may avoid the subject, but others are trying to address the troubling questions. If people are to go on, to recover and rebuild, the need to find an explanation for what has been done to them is urgent.

Failing that, God begins to look like a terrorist, a wanton taker of life. Thus blind, feeling with our hands against whatever is out there in the blackness, we look for meaning.

God, or Allah, may have been sending a message via the earthquake under the sea- or so reports The Washington Post. The paper reported that “highly influential Islamic clerics have explained the giant wave that devastated this overwhelmingly Muslim region as a warning to the faithful that they must more strictly observe their religion, including a ban on Muslims killing Muslims.”

The Muslims-killing-Muslims remark refers to the bloody insurgency in Aceh, which has been going on for years. The controversy between the locals and the central government in Jakarta has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with money, but even dazed and traumatized people have reason enough to forget old quarrels and put a religious gloss on what has happened: “We have to make a lot of changes in our lives, and this is God’s way of letting us know,” said Hetty Meutia Dewy in the same Post article. The agriculture student at Bogor University and member of the Islamic Association of Students said, “The imams have said it was a warning. They said God loves the Aceh people, but the tsunami was a warning to be better people.”

Why just the Aceh people? Have they misbehaved more than the New York people or the Sardinian people?

There are parallel Christian interpretations of the event, although connecting it with God can bring up uncomfortable questions which true believers may be unprepared to discuss. Creationists and others who teach that man and the cosmos are too complicated to have originated by chance may be happy to let chance or Mother Nature take the rap for the death and misery inflicted on Southeast Asia.

Thoughtful Christians who are able to attain a certain emotional honesty do take up the connection between the Divinity and such murderous events as earthquakes. “How can you believe in a God who would let this happen? That question is understandably very much around at the moment,” says the Rt. Rev. Tim Stevens, the Anglican bishop of Leicester. For example, he said, “if God is in control, he must be a monster if He allows disaster on a massive scale to hit defenseless and vulnerable people, including children. Or if He is not in control and unable to save us from earthquake and flood, what is the point of belief and prayer?” Every thoughtful person who has ever read the Book of Job has had the same doubts and qualms.

The bishop cannot answer his question. He writes: “There are no easy or glib answers to be found. In a way, the only dignified response to such desperate grief is silence. Attempting to explain to those who have lost everything is crass and insulting.” For seers, prophesiers and preachers doing hermeneutics on the disaster, he has a warning: “Those who claim to be able to know or explain too much of God’s power or control are dangerous, like those who have made the dreadful suggestion that this event is a sign of God’s wrath for some sinful acts.”

For Bishop Stevens, the continued faith of millions, their prayers and their unstinting efforts to help the helpless in their desperate hour, is sufficient. For others, it is not.

For others, the debate about theodicy is far from settled. The word means “justifying the acts of God to human beings in light of the existence of evil, pain and death.” The word was first used in 1710 in a philosophical work by the mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a practicing Lutheran. How can a God of perfect goodness permit events of perfect awfulness? Leibniz’s solution is described in an article by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson: “Leibniz claims that the universe had to be imperfect, otherwise it would not be distinct from God. He then claims that the universe is the best possible without being perfect. Leibniz is aware that this argument looks unlikely-surely a universe in which nobody is killed by floods is better than the present one, but still not perfect. His argument here is that the elimination of natural disasters, for example, would involve such changes to the laws of science that the world would be worse.”

Of course, there is the two-god solution to the problem, which posits one good God (Jesus and/or Jehovah) and one bad god. The two-god solution was condemned as a heresy by the year 300 C.E. (“of the Common Era,” the term which diversity politics asks us to use instead of the old “A.D.”). This hypothesis is as complicated and unpersuasive as Leibniz’s, but for many people it is better than nothing, which is the agnostic view of such terrible events. The cosmography of the godless depicts a soulless universe that squashes its own living creations with unconscious disregard of any and all things but the laws of its own physics. That human beings suffer and live life spans shorter than that of the fruit fly when compared to the age of the universe means nothing to the Great Nothingness-but what of a God who does see, feel and know, and who treats His living creations with such wanton cruelty?

Since no one has come up with an answer that is satisfactory to most of us, we might as well carry on denying that God is responsible for the hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons and other acts of God and shift the blame over on to Mother Nature, the bitch.

Given that God will be God and do His or Her God Things whatever we say or do or believe or pray, we might focus on our own human behavior. It is a fact that, by the general reckoning, more people have been murdered in the past few years in the Congo (three million) than are thought to have been killed by the tsunami. Likewise on the totals killed in the conflicts involving Iraq and Iran the past 25 years. If you want, you can go around the globe making other similar, baleful comparisons.

To forestall death by tsunami, they say much can be done with early warning systems. As for death by gunfire and machete, well …. Pinning the Blame For Nature’s Wrath