Generous Orthodoxy  




Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Haitian calamity

At the time of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, David B. Hart, the Eastern Orthodox theologian, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal which attracted wide attention. Bill Eerdmans, of Eerdmans Publishing, contacted Hart and asked him to expand the column into a book. Hart did so, and the resulting The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? is the most useful short treatment of the problem of evil and suffering that we have.

When I saw a tweet this morning I was reminded of Hart's book. The tweet said, "Why don't we have earthquakes on Park Avenue? The people of Haiti are so poor."

Why, indeed?

A frequent response heard from Christians is, "God has some purpose in this." "Something good will come out of this." "Haiti will become stronger as a result of this."

In one sense, all these things are true; however, these are deeply wrong responses, both theologically and pastorally. In a long chapter on the problem of evil which I wrote last year for my forthcoming book on the Crucifixion, I reflected long and hard on these matters. Glib, monochromatic responses to catastrophe should have no place in our faith.

It is important to maintain two contradictory attitudes at once in many areas of Christian theology, and this is one of those areas. These are the two clashing points of view in this case:

Point of view #1: The creation does declare the glory of God, and the "Thunderstorm Psalm" (#29: "The Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon") proclaims that message magnificently. God is not only the Creator but also the One who rules over the cosmos. The theophany in the book of Job (chs. 38-41) is the preeminent biblical passage treating of this subject, and the phrase "the doors of the sea" is derived from 38:8. Many people have experienced a sort of theophany--a manifestation of the power of God--even in the midst of destruction; people have testified to this even when they have had to face the dire consequences of a natural catastrophe (there are examples of this in Isaac's Storm, the book about the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, and in David McCullough's account of the Johnstown Flood). So the wild, untamed aspect of nature can be either comforting or exhilarating or both, depending on one's point of view.

Point of view #2: At the same time, nature is not benign. Nature is "red in tooth and claw." Nature, like the human race, is fallen and is subject to the powers of the evil one who continues to occupy this sphere. Flannery O'Connor wrote that her work was about the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil; we should not fail to realize that "nature" is part of that occupied territory. Nature is often hostile, as Annie Dillard has so powerfully shown us, and the nature-worshippers among us fail to acknowledge this hostility in their pantheistic enthusiasm. Only by action of the Creator will the peaceable kingdom arrive, where the lion lies down with the lamb (isn't it suggestive that "Lion of Judah" and "Lamb of God" are both titles of our Lord?)
The conflict between these two realities cannot be resolved in this life. Does the Creator of all that is have the power to say to those tectonic plates, "Be still!" Of course. Then why doesn't he? Why does he permit earthquakes in the poorest country in the hemisphere?

We do not know.

Saying "there is a reason for everything" may be true, but that is a cruel and heartless response at the point of great suffering. The most pastoral response, as well as the most truthful theological response, is to live in the contradiction. A few years ago, in one of the Southern states, a tornado came through a town on Palm Sunday and crushed a church, killing the pastor's daughter (I have the details of this somewhere but am not taking the time to find them at the moment). The pastor said "I don't think this is a time for asking 'why?' We just have to help each other through this."

There are many ways to give money for relief in Haiti. (We're sending ours to Episcopal Relief and Development.) All Christians need to pray and be mindful of the terrible sorrow and need. And we can read accounts of the disaster and take the details of the suffering to heart. Here is one such account:

(This is a statement posted on line at The New York Times today)

Words cannot begin to describe the devastation that has taken place in Port au Prince, Haiti.
I am the Director of Disaster Services for The Salvation Army in Haiti, and I am from the United States. My wife and I have been in [Port-au-Prnce] since April, and have fallen deeply in love with the country and its people.

When the earthquake struck, I was driving down the mountain from Petionville. Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings “pancaking” down, like I have never witnessed before. Traffic, of course, came to a stand-still, while thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them. We piled as many bodies into the back of our truck, and took them down the hill with us, hoping to find medical attention. All of them were older, scared, bleeding, and terrified. It took about 2 hours to go less than 1 mile. Traffic was horrible, devastation was everywhere, and suffering humanity was front and center.

When we could drive no further, we left the truck parked on the side of the street, and walked the remaining 2 miles to get back to the Army compound. What I found was very sad! All of the security walls were down. The Children’s Home itself seems pretty intact, but our quarters, which is attached, are destroyed. Unliveable. The walls and ceiling are still standing - but so badly compromised that I wouldn’t even think of trying to stay there. All of the children, and hundreds of neighbors, are sleeping in our playground area tonight. Occasionally, there is another tremor - another reminder that we are not yet finished with this calamity. And when it comes, all of the people cry out and the children are terrified.

As I am sitting outside now, with most people trying to get a little sleep, I can hear the moans and cries of the neighbors. One of our staff went to a home in the neighborhood, to try to be of assistance to the woman who lived there. But she was too late.

The scene will be repeated over and over again.