Thursday, January 28, 2010

God in Haiti (Sunday Reflections for January 31, 2009)

Did God cause the earthquake in Haiti? TV evangelist Pat Robertson implied as much on his 700 Club TV show. A torrent of criticism poured down on him afterwards but I’m not aware that he’s retracted or modified his remarks.

When speaking about the catastrophe and calling the country to come to Haiti’s aid, President Obama said, “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south, knowing that but for the grace of God, there we go.” Yet these gracious words also hide a questionable theology, as writer James Woods observes in the New York Times.

And there was God once again. Awkwardly, the literal meaning of Mr. Obama’s phrase is not so far from Pat Robertson’s hatefulness. Who, after all, would want to worship the kind of God whose “grace” protects Americans from Haitian horrors?

There, but for the grace of God, go I. While we may not think or say those somewhat archaic words, many of us express a similar sentiment when we encounter someone else’s misfortune. But what do we mean by it? What did President Obama mean? It can be a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, or a stranger in a news story that catches our attention: hit by a car, diagnosed with cancer, or (common today) loses their job and falls into financial ruin. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

That could have been me, we think. But it wasn’t me because . . . God protected me? I’m lucky or the other person was unlucky? Or what?

Under any kind of theological system, Robertson’s analysis is pretty farfetched. Even if true, it makes no sense that a “pact with the devil” (as Robertson alleged) made centuries ago would cause God to send an earthquake today. But what about the individual victims? Woods quotes several responses by Haitian survivors:

“We have survived by the grace of God.”

“I blame man. God gave us nature, and we Haitians, and our governments, abused the land. You cannot get away without consequences.”

“Why give thanks to God? Because we are here. What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now.”

The last was spoken by Bishop √Čric Toussaint as he stood by the heavily damaged cathedral in Port-au-Prince, where the Roman Catholic archbishop was killed. Woods appreciates why BishopToussaint would speak such ambivalent thoughts but he doesn’t buy them.

This response is entirely understandable, uttered in a ruined landscape beyond the experience of most of us, and a likely source of pastoral comfort to the bishop’s desperate flock. But that should not obscure the fact that it is little more than a piece of helpless mystification, a contradictory cry of optimistic despair.

“A contradictory cry of optimistic despair”? The judgment sounds harsh but it may not be far from the truth. As Woods says, none of us can truly appreciate what it is like to experience something as catastrophic as the Haitian earthquake and then trying to regain our equilibrium in a homeland shattered almost beyond recognition. Would we be surprised to find that many/most survivors are in some state of shock? As is becoming increasingly well known, PTSD is not simply an experience of veterans but can afflict anyone who has gone through a traumatic event. Inevitably people’s feelings, thoughts, and perceptions are distorted and jumbled as they try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

For most of human history, there was no explanation for natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes or outbreaks of plague other than, “God/the gods did this.” Today it’s different. Regarding earthquakes, we all know about fault lines and plate tectonics. Indeed, seismologists had told the Haitian government a short while ago that a major earthquake there was a highly likely in the near future. They even told them about how strong it would be and they were right on the money. Time and Haiti’s poverty prevented anything really useful being done with this information.

Telling Haitian victims now about plate tectonics wouldn’t be cold-hearted as much as it would be irrelevant. At times of trauma and loss, literal explanations may be of some help but what we really need is to somehow integrate such events into our life story. Hence the most typical response at such times is, Why me?

There is growing scientific evidence that humans are hard-wired to look for explanations for our experiences. It sounds obvious but it isn’t really. Indeed it’s one of the things that sets us apart from other animals and is one of our primary survival skills. Formulating explanations helps us predict events and behaviors and plan responses. For better or for worse, though, we can’t seem to turn it off. We look for—and find—explanations for lots of things that may have no explanations or very simple ones. It’s what leads to superstitions (an athlete’s lucky t-shirt—he always wins with it), scapegoating (“It’s all the Jews fault”), and yes, sometimes to God (“God has done this”).

Did God cause you to get cancer? No, you have a faulty gene, you ingested polluting chemicals in the air or water, you were a smoker. Did God cause your car crash? No, there was ice, the other driver was drunk, you were driving too fast. Did God cause your house to fall and kill your wife? No, there was an earthquake and your house was not strong enough to withstand it and she was inside while you were coming home from work. Emotionally and psychologically, however, we may not be able to hear such explanations. They don’t help us make sense of the world we live in which has suddenly gone crazy and out of control.

So, is God irrelevant? As an explanation for Haiti’s earthquake, basically yes. Is God absent? That’s a tougher question and one the Bible struggles with in many places. In the end, I think, the Bible concludes that theological speculation is a dead end. Instead, it keeps coming back to the practical and human question: What does suffering and tragedy mean for me?

Near the end of Matthew Jesus tells his famous sheep and goats story. People get into the kingdom based on how they treated the king when he was naked, sick, or imprisoned. “But when did we see you?” they ask. Whenever you cared for or ignored a person in such situations, that’s how you treated me, the king says. Based on that story and in the Bible’s paradoxical way of thinking, if we want to find God it seems Haiti is just the kind of place where we ought to look.

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