Monday, September 13, 2010

Getting our theology right about natural disasters

It has been observed quite frequently in our papers since the 7.1 earthquake in Christchurch on Saturday 4th September that a similar magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on 12th January this year, but in our quake no one has directly lost their life due to the quake, whereas reportedly 230,000 people died following the Haiti quake. This comparison is sobering.

On the one hand it gives, or should give impetus to urgent work on 'engineering solutions' to earthquakes: tough building codes, designed to ensure that buildings can withstand large quakes, can save lives. That has been our experience in Christchurch where, notwithstanding some pictures to the contrary, most buildings are still standing, and most roads are still working.

On the other hand it raises some intriguing theological questions. To what extent, if any, for example, has God been at work here so that the quake occurred at the perfect time to minimise potential casualties: 4.36 am, after inner city party goers were home in bed, and before daytime workers were up and about. The word 'miracle' has been used in connection with our lack of loss of life. Given the range of meanings of 'miracle' in today's world, I do not disagree with it's use. At the very least, for example, it is amazing and astounding and improbable that we have come through as we have.

But what if some are using 'miracle' in the sense of 'God intervened to ensure that no one died, and the barest minimum have been injured'? Would that be stretching our understanding of God's power to intervene in human and planetary life? If we blot Haiti's earthquake from our minds, the answer could be 'no', but with the Haiti disaster carefully remembered, I suggest the answer is 'yes'. It is very difficult to fathom why Christchurch should be singled out for intervention relative to Haiti: we have plenty of godless people, and we shamelessly tolerate abominable things such as prostitution on our streets, to say nothing of exploitation of people in other ways such as through shady property development (some of which appears to lie behind the savage effects of the quake on some houses), so there is nothing particularly worthy about our fair city deserving divine intervention. Actually, even if we had no comparison to make with Haiti, any sense that God has intervened here is a troubling notion because comparisons exist within our city: some parts are wrecked, others are not. "What is the story, O Lord?" would be a fair cry from those in anguish over losing their homes, knowing that many have not.

Some thinking along these lines was in the background to my preaching yesterday. To my mind came the following passage in Luke 13:4-5 where Jesus says:

"Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Here Jesus seems singularly uninterested in questions about God's predestinary purposes, or understanding causes of suffering, or offering understanding of good purposes to explain suffering ('It makes you a better person, ... not!'). His interest is simple and stark: disaster is a loud shouted warning, 'Repent.' Concomitantly Jesus is also saying that disasters are not a punishment for sin. Implicitly this means that surviving disasters is not a reward for holiness.

We might wish that Jesus, of all people, gave us a deeper and wider theological explanation of disaster as an element in the larger subject of human suffering. But he does not. His message is basic, simple, and stark: "Be prepared for death now!"

Incidentally, to those slightly nutty Christians who interpret disasters of this kind as judgement on the church, or at least on the heretical or wicked parts of the church, this disaster has been an equally-distributed-in-its-effects disaster: Protestant and Roman Catholic, Western orthodox and Eastern orthodox, liberal and conservative, evangelical and anglo-catholic churches have all suffered damage!


Roscoe Mishmack said...

Perhaps, knowing what we know now, we might pay more attention to Luke 6.48-49 and perhaps even Luke 14.28-30?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Roscoe,
Luke 6:48-49 is very much in people's minds. Sadly some will now realise what they did not realise, that their houses were, effectively, built on sand.

Luke 14:28-30 may apply very directly to those contemplating the difference between insurance pay out and cost of restoration.

Roscoe Mishmack said...

Is that perhaps the point of the parable, Peter - that we go ahead and build the elaborate structures of our lives, assuming that the foundation we're building on will stand the test when it comes? And wasn't it known that half of Christchurch was built on top of the gravel beds of a braided river? Wasn't the problem more one of not expecting to be put to this particular test? Not this sort of flood?

This is starting to sound to me like a metaphor for the church (as we know it), but what would I know? I'm not a theologian.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Roscoe,
I don't think it is the houses built on river gravel that are suffering so much as the ones built on river sand. And the question which will be addressed eventually is what people knew and didn't know about the sand under their houses.

But you are right about the beginnings of a metaphor for the church!

Roscoe Mishmack said...

I hope this doesn't sound boringly repetitive, Peter, but I'm thinking of it as a parable (rather than the event itself) and the insight for me is that it's not about what we know but what we think we can take for granted. Maybe the man who built the house on the sand wasn't supposed to a complete idiot, just someone who didn't dig down far enough to be sure or (maybe) didn't allow for the eventuality of something that hadn't happened before. In other words, just like most of us.

I'm looking forward to seeing what you do with the church metaphor.