Included in a mass burial in India, 8-year-old Anthony Praveen shocked hospital workers when he suddenly sat up and opened he eyes. Though saved from the tsunami when it hit the town of Vailankanni, India, and saved again from premature burial, Praveen's story is not seen as a glimmer of hope amid the tragedy. According to The Washington Times, "His father, a daily-wage laborer from Madras, had taken his wife and two children on a pilgrimage to the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Health in Vailankanni, a shrine famed for its healing powers, [Praveen's] grandmother explained." The only other survivor in the family, she said the family made an offering at the church, went to the sea to bathe, and were swept away by the tsunami.
"They went to offer their hair to [Mother] Vailankanni," said the grandmother. "In return, they lost their lives to the sea. I don't know why [Mother] gave this rude blow to us. How can I take care of this boy and his education now?"
Did God cause the tsunami?
Supernatural causation and divine culpability are the hottest debates coming out of the Indian Ocean devastation. Man-made destruction seems easier to understand and explain than indiscriminate natural havoc. That's why there is so much more discussion of theodicy in newspapers around the globe than after 9/11. We don't blame Abel's death on God; we blame it on Cain. But it's much easier for people, like Job's friends, to blame the death of Job's family on someone.
One commentator says it's God's fault, not that he exists. "God, if there is a God, should be ashamed of himself. The sheer enormity of the Asian tsunami disaster, the death, destruction, and havoc it has wreaked, the scale of the misery it has caused, must surely test the faith of even the firmest believer," says Allan Laing, in The Glasgow Herald in Scotland says, "I hope I'm right that there is no God. For, if there were, then he'd have to shoulder the blame. In my book, he would be as guilty as sin and I'd want nothing to do with him. A death toll of 140,000 (and still rising) is one helluva price to pay to let the rest of us feel his presence and allow humankind to indulge in a redemptive exercise of mass compassion."
Kenneth Nguyen, writing in The Age of Melbourne, Australia agrees. "Responsibility for the tsunami must be sheeted home to God . the tsunami has highlighted just how unpalatable the idea of an interventionist God ultimately is."
If believing in a God that allows tragedy is difficult, Nguyen will have more difficulty understanding a God the uses tsunamis to punish. Some in India are blaming the tragedy on Christians and the recent arrest of a Hindu leader. "In Indiaa country often seen as a spiritual battleground, where religions fight over the souls of the poor and dispossessedsome conservative Hindus have used the tsunami to criticize both a Hindu leader's arrest and the presence of Christian missionaries in India. Meanwhile," reports Beliefnet, "evangelical Christian groups may proselytize as they help tsunami victims."
But most Westerners have quit believing in a God that causes or prevents natural disasters. "To profess that sort of belief is to betray oneself as a captive to a fundamentalist mind-set that has elevated faith above reason in apprehending natural phenomena," says Scot Lehigh of The Boston Globe.
Michael Novak, on the National Review Online, says that those who blame or get angry with God are angry with a God they profess not to believe in. Those who ask, "How could God let this happen?" are not seeking an answer. Rather, it is an attempt "to prove that he has been smarter all along, and to watch me have to surrender as he has surrendered."
"They do not blame just any God," says Novak. "They blame the God of Christianity, for in Christ the world has been given an even more vivid image of divine concern for the poor, the lowly, and the needy, and of divine gentleness, friendship, and love. The question is not, 'Does God measure up to our (liberal, compassionate, self-deceived) standards?' The question is, 'Will we learn how great, on a far different scale from ours, is God's love?'"
No more sentimental view of nature
Novak also critiques abstract notions of a God of benign goodness. "Most of the public voices in our enlightened age have gotten away with the indefensible drivel of liberal sentimentalism, chattering as if all intelligent people are atheists, whose god is a benevolent, nurturing, sheltering Mother Nature."
David Brooks also says Mother Nature can no longer be viewed as the New England Transcendentalists once did. "The naturalists hold up nature as the spiritual tonic to our vulgar modern world. They urge us to break down the barriers that alienate us from nature. Live simply and imbibe nature's wisdom. Nature doesn't seem much like a nurse or friend this week, and when Thoreau goes on to celebrate the savage wildness of nature, he sounds, this week, like a boy who has seen a war movie and thinks he has experienced the glory of combat," Brooks says.
Brooks also complains of how quickly we must turn tragedy into hope. "The world's generosity has indeed been amazing, but sometimes we use our compassion as a self-enveloping fog to obscure our view of the abyss. Somehow it's wrong to turn this event into a good-news story so we can all feel warm this holiday season. It's wrong to turn it into a story about us, who gave, rather than about them, whose lives were ruined. It's certainly wrong to turn this into yet another petty political spat, as many tried, disgustingly, to do."
"Only a churl would deny anyone the consolation of hope," writes Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. "But this frantic drive to find heartwarming alternatives to the death and destruction seems more a symptom of the American psyche than a 'fact on the ground' in the tsunami zone. We impose hope because it allows us to contain a horrific story."
Kennicott decries the "celebrity" journalists who find survivors or areas the waves missed in order to allow viewers to feel better. Each story has a religious arc: Tragedy leads to salvation. "Disaster also forces the skeptical mind to question God's existence, and yet the mediasupposedly so skepticaldo a virtuoso dance around the problem of God and his mercy."
In Europe, also, commentators wonder if the culture is no longer able to debate God's role in the tragedy. "Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy," writes Martin Kettle in The Guardian. "They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?"
The problem isn't a matter of belief versus nonbelief, says The Telegraph in an editorial. "Like so many things in modern British life, agnosticism is not a function of deliberation and reasoning, but of apathy and indifference." But if the tsunami does make you want to blame God, The Times of London has a suggestion. "Try to imagine a world without these interventions by fate. Would you prefer it?"
Besides, can we blame God for the deaths caused by the tsunami, when humans do far more damage by themselves? "For all its horror, the suffering caused by natural disasters is not comparable to the suffering that human beings inflict on one another," writes Paul Stenhouse in The Australian.
Rabbi Michael Lerner offers evidence. "Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over 10 million children a year! The difference between the almost nonexistent coverage of this ongoing human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions. Imagine if every single day there were headlines in every newspaper in the world and every television show saying: '29,000 children died yesterday from preventable diseases and malnutrition.'"
Attempted Christian responses
Belief in God is not tied to our interpretation of natural events. "The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again," writes Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in a defense that notably lacks anything Christian. "Not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them they have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence. These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world, but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease, but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart."
The article has been criticizedby the paper that published itbut Williams seems to be saying that when Job asked God to explain himself, God's only answer was to provoke that "amazement and silence."
But Williams does criticize arm-chair philosophers. "The odd thing is that those who are most deeply involvedboth as sufferers and as helpersare so often the ones who spend least energy in raging over the lack of explanation. They are most aware of two things: a kind of strength and vision just to go on; and a sense of the imperative for practical service and love. Somehow in all of this, God simply emerges for them as a faithful presence."
After all, says Edward Spence in The Sydney Morning Herald, "Perhaps this is the essence, if the legend is true, of what God learnt from us when he walked and suffered as a man among us. Ultimately, the problem of evil confronts us not as a puzzle to be solved but as a mystery to be experienced."
Donna Schaper, pastor of the North Hadley Church in Massachusetts, also says to embrace the mystery. "We put reality in too small a box. If there is a gift in this unexplainable horror, it will be in a renewed respect for mystery, a new respect for the untameable sea and the land. This disaster may bring us back toward life by helping us enjoy the gifts we have in a way we might not have been able to do before the great sea."
Bishop of Durham Tom Wright instead looks to Jesus. Western culture hasn't gotten past the standoff that occurred after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, when tens of thousands died. "Lisbon drove a wedge between God and the world, giving fresh impetus to the idea of God as an absentee landlord and then, not long after, a mere absentee. Since then, it has been assumed that 'God' has a responsibility to stop things like earthquakes and tidal waves; if he doesn't, they constitute a standing disproof. What's the point in saying 'The heavens declare the glory of God,' if tidal waves declare his incompetence?"
But the Bible's absence from the discussion of the meaning of the tsunami is a great loss, Wright says. "It tells a story about the Creator's plan to put the world to rights, a plan which involves a people who are themselves part of the problem as well as the bearers of the solution. It tells a story about Jesus' own sense of abandonment, and thereby encourages us to embrace the same sense of helpless involvement in the sorrow of the world, as the means by which the world is to be healed. Those who work for justice, reconciliation, and peace will know that sense, and perhaps, occasionally, that healing."
A suffering savior
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Christians ought to respond as the Bible does. "A faithful Christian response will affirm the true character and power of Godhis omnipotence and his benevolence. God is in control of the entire universe, and there is not even a single atom outside his sovereignty. And God's goodness and love are beyond question. The Bible leaves no room for equivocation on either truth. We must speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Scripture is silent. Christians must avoid offering explanations when God has not revealed an explanation."
Barney Zwartz, religion editor at The Age, agrees that seeking to figure out a God beyond our comprehension is outside of philosophical understanding.
Theodicy discusses suffering as a theoretical abstraction to be justified by logical inference from an abstract philosophical deity who is reduced to a set of attributes: perfect goodness, perfect knowledge, perfect power. This philosopher's god is a metaphysical creation of the Enlightenment for purposes of argumentthe person and teaching of Jesus, for example, does not enter the discussion.
But, as Christian philosopher Stanley Hauerwas shows, for the early Christians, suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge needing a response of faith. Apparently it never occurred to them to question their belief in God or his goodness because they were unjustly suffering. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune.
Zwartz says that when Jesus was "asked for a theological account of suffering, Jesus instead highlights the urgency of the gospel call of the Kingdom of God: repent (change course) and believe."
- Aid groups await island access | Government delay said to ignore urgency of tribes' needs (The Washington Post)
- Tsunami relief: RSS praises Christians, Muslims | In a rare praise, the RSS today lauded the "commendable" work done by Christian and Muslim missionary organisations in providing succor to the tsunami-affected people in southern India (PTI, India)
- Boy awakens, averts burial | Workers at a hospital mortuary in the Indian pilgrim town of Velankanni received a chilling shock when a boy they had thought dead abruptly opened his eyes and sat up (The Washington Times)
- Credit card companies profit from donations | Aid agencies ask for fee waiver (The Times, London)
- The future of calamity | In seven hours last week, great ocean waves exacted a terrible price in wealth and human lives. Future catastrophes may be far grimmer (The New York Times)
- Anger rises as does toll in remote Indian islands | Indian Christian groups complain local officials were hindering their attempts to take aid to tribes, many of whom are Christian (Associated Press)
- Fearing a sea that once sustained, then killed | In Mullaittivu, Christians like Subakean Albino dab sea water on their foreheads and eyelids, and pray to the Virgin Mary and St. Anthony, who is believed to have the power to ward off shipwrecks (The New York Times)
Archbishop of Canterbury:
- 'Where is God in all this?' - the problem for religions | As religious leaders strive to make sense of disaster, Archbishop of Canterbury admits there are no simple answers (The Guardian, London)
- Archbishop of Canterbury admits: This makes me doubt the existence of God | In a deeply personal and candid article, he says "it would be wrong" if faith were not "upset" by the catastrophe which has already claimed more than 150,000 lives (The Telegraph, London)
- Of course this makes us doubt God's existence | (Rowan Williams, The Telegraph, London)
- Faith in plain language | If Dr Williams was indeed misrepresented by our sister paper's headline, he himself must accept much of the blame. His prose is so obscure, his thought processes so hard to follow, that his message is often unclear (Editorial, The Telegraph, London)
- In angry waves, the devout see an angry God | Aceh's 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 Washington Post)
- Was this the hand of God? | Many of those trying to come to terms with the sheer scale of devastation wrought by the Asian tsunami have found their faith tested in recent days (The Belfast Telegraph)
- Faith tested, sometimes bested by tsunami | "I've been a Christian all my life, but after this, I don't want to have anything to do with God," said A. Murugan (The Washington Times)
- Tremors of doubt | What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami? (David B. Hart, The Wall Street Journal)
- Tsunami leads to debate over God | The Indian Ocean tsunami disaster has led to debate among religious leaders over whether the mass destruction was a warning from God (The Sydney Morning Herald)
- When tragedy strikes, faith provides support |It's one of the first questions a child asks, and one that recurs throughout our lives: Why? (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
- O God, how could you? | This recent mega-tragedy does not call in question the existence of God, but it should make us pause and reflect about what kind of God we have. Is God really a God who is love? (Teodoro Bacani Jr, ABS-CBN, Philippines)
- Beyond belief: a human strategy for survival | It seems hard to accept the self-evident logic: there is no benevolent God guiding human affairs (Paul Valent, The Age, Melbourne, Australia)
- Questions of faith | Even in the secular Western world, one of the questions raised by a natural disaster of the scope that occurred this week in Southeast Asia is a theological one - perhaps due to the human need to "blame someone" (Haaretz, Tel Aviv, Israel)
- Waves of destruction wash away belief in God's benevolence | Compassion is the best response when humanity faces the problem of evil (Edward Spence, The Sydney Morning Herald)
- Questions of faith bound to rise from catastrophe | Four major religions practiced in devastated southern Asia offer different beliefs to console followers stunned by unfathomable tragedy (Chicago Tribune)
- Seeking the hand of God in the waters | Since Sunday, those of different faiths have sought their own meaning, and some kind of explanation, for such a massive loss of life (The Washington Post)
- When God goes missing | God has lost one of his virtues (Misha Schubert, The Age, Melbourne, Australia)
- Countless souls cry out to God | After a cataclysm of biblical proportions, people of all faiths ask, Why us? Why here? Why now? (Newsweek)
- Why does God allow terrible things to happen to His people? | Jews read the Bible differently (Jonathan Sacks, The Times, London)
- Disaster tests the belief of a planet united in prayer | The Queen was among millions of churchgoers asked by religious leaders to contemplate the "difficult theological questions" raised by the tsunami during remembrance services and prayers held in churches throughout Britain and around the world (The Times, London)
- Pope says faith helps in calamities | Pope John Paul II said Sunday that faith can be helpful during catastrophes like the Indian Ocean tsunami by reminding sufferers of God's continued presence (Associated Press)
- Tsunami relief effort shows power of U.S. | It is bound to make Christians feel unease that God allowed an earthquake and tidal waves to kill more than 100,000 people on the birthday of His Son. As it happens, it has left the post-Christians of modern Europe floundering philosophically too (John O'Sullivan, Chicago Sun-Times)
- Tsunami has not shaken our faith | Religious leaders in Norwich today spoke of how the Asian tsunami disaster had raised many questions about God and suffering (Evening News, Norwich, England)
- 'How could God let this happen?' | Religions grapple with tsunami disaster (AFP)
- An act of God? | The sweeping devastation and intense horror wrought by the south Asia tsunami will shake the faith of many "believers" (BBC)
- Faiths ask of quake: 'Why did you do this, God?' | It is one of the oldest, most profound questions, posed by some of the most learned minds of every faith throughout the course of human history. (Reuters)
- Residents see spared icons as divine sign | Legs folded, smiling serenely, several Buddha statues of cement and plaster sit unscathed amid collapsed brick walls and other tsunami debris. To many residents, the survival of the 10-foot-high figures is a divine sign. (Associated Press)
- Tsunami hits at the heart, even at faith | "Accept what God allows" is a common message among clergy one week after the deadly tsunamis in South Asia claimed more than 100,000 lives, left millions homeless and will likely lead to widespread disease in that region (Jackson Sun, Tenn.)
- The faithful seek answers | People of all faiths around the world are grappling to fathom the enormity of one of the worst natural disasters in modern history, and many are turning to religion (The Boston Globe)
- Tsunami tests religious faith | Some of Australia's Anglican Bishops say the tsunami was in part a message from God reminding people of their mortality and of the need to repent (AM, Australian Broadcasting Corp.)
- Why does God allow this? | Tsunami has theologians and scholars pondering nature of evil (The Kansas City Star)
Religions in the region:
- Some see God's hand in remade landscape | Believers point to intact religious structures as evidence of a force far greater than waves. Was the devastating tsunami a warning from on high? (Los Angeles Times)
- Criticism spurs boost in aid from Arab nations | Despite the increase, many people in Mideast still fret that the region, flush with oil wealth, appears stingy in its tsunami relief efforts (Los Angeles Times)
- Tsunami's aftermath unites religious groups | The tsunami's devastating impact is bringing people together in Southern Nevada -- people of all religions. More than 100 people gathered on Friday to pray for the victims and raise donations for their families. (KLAS, Las Vegas)
- Calamity unites people of different religion | Serving humanity is supreme at the time of calamity. This was witnessed at the graveyard of the famous Dargah at Nagore where bodies of people following different religion were buried. (New Kerala, India)
- Mosques, temples house tsunami refugees | Mosques and churches in Banda Aceh were the first places many people ran when the disaster struck Sunday morning, killing perhaps 100,000 on Sumatra alone. Now, they are serving as clinics, morgues and community centers for a shattered region (Associated Press)
- Faiths unite amid ruin in India | For now, old religious tensions have been swept away (The Christian Science Monitor)
- Authorities wary as radical groups pour into Aceh | Islamists, some with ties to terrorists, could further destabilize fragile region (The Globe and Mail, Toronto)
Christians in the region:
- Where tsunami spared a church | Thousands of tsunami victims pray for another touch of grace from Our Lady of Health to heal the wounds caused by nature's fury on one fateful Sabbath day (The Tribune, India)
- Stronger faith builds in the wake | Hundreds of people packed St Mary's Cathedral in Hobart last night for a special mass - led by two Sri Lankan priests - for victims of the tsunami (The Mercury, Tasmania)
- A tremor, then a sigh of relief, before the cataclysm rushed in | At a dawn Mass the day after Christmas, as Father Maria Devanesan lifted the host above his head in reverence, the large white wafer began to tremble (Los Angeles Times)
- Car Nicobar's famous church flattened by tsunami | The famous John Richardson church in Car Nicobar in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has been completely destroyed by the giant tsunami that also killed thousands in the pristine archipelago. (Indo-Asian News Service)
- Sri Lanka special to diocese | Priests from that country, hit by tsunami, serve in area. (South Bend Tribune, Ind.)
- Turlock couple's family escapes harm | A missionary family of seven with Turlock roots is saying prayers of gratitude after having survived the deadly tsunami in Thailand. (Modesto Bee, Calif.)
- Pope celebrates Mass for tsunami victims | Pope John Paul II celebrated a special Mass early Saturday in his private chapel for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunamis and later publicly praised the outpouring of aid for the stricken populations as a sign of hope for 2005 (Associated Press)
Ministry & relief:
- Unprecedented giving by individual donors | Catholic Relief Services reported receiving nearly $1 million a day last week. Lutheran World Relief collected a record $1.5 million over three days last week (The Baltimore Sun)
- Giving comfort in several languages | Interfaith prayers said for victims of tsunami (The Washington Post)
- From a distance, hope glimmers like a mirage amid the misery | Only a churl would deny anyone the consolation of hope, but this frantic drive to find heartwarming alternatives to the death and destruction seems more a symptom of the American psyche than a "fact on the ground" in the tsunami zone. We impose hope because it allows us to contain a horrific story (Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post)
- Private U.S. aid for tsunami tops $200M | One charity said online pledges were coming in at the rate of $100,000 an hour (Associated Press)
- Pledges grow, hurdles loom in relief effort | Fresh infusions of aid gave yet more push to the global relief effort for Asia as it confronted logistical breakdowns (The New York Times)
- Credit card firms waive fee for aid | Charities raising money for the Asian tsunami disaster yesterday welcomed a decision by banks and other organisations not to charge a transaction fee on donations made by credit cards (The Telegraph, London)
- Relief groups hail level of donations by individuals | The huge response from individual donors who want to help victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, spurred in part by a year-end spirit of gift-giving, has stunned officials at the world's largest private relief agencies (The New York Times)
- Principled giving in times of crisis | A brief guide (Karen Woods, National Review Online)
- Relief efforts blur religious boundaries | Different faiths in Central N.J. aid disaster victims (New Brunswick Home News Tribune, N.J.)
- The faithful are giving generously, and often | Margaret Gibbs, a professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, says there is a relationship between altruism and empathy (The Record, Bergen County, N.J.)
- Worshipers seek comfort in giving | Devastation in Asia inspires sermons, prompts donations (The Washington Post)
- U.S. aid generous and stingy | It depends on how the numbers are crunched -- total dollars or a slice of the overall economy (Los Angeles Times)
- Aid groups await island access | Government delay said to ignore urgency of tribes' needs (The Washington Post)
- Christian right's compassion deficit | More than 100,000 dead in south Asia, but it's business as usual at the web sites of America's Christian right organizations (Bill Berkowitz , WorkingForChange.com)
- Global response could provide breakthrough in poverty relief | The unprecedented and worldwide public response to the tsunami disaster may help make 2005 a breakthrough year in tackling world poverty, senior figures in aid agencies believe (The Independent, London)
- Religious groups reach out to victims | Area residents use Sunday services as rallying points to give aid to countries hit by tsunami (Daily Pilot, Newport Beach, Ca.)
- Where should your money go? | How can you ensure that your contributions to tsunami relief are put to best possible use? (Time)
- Faiths unite for disaster appeal | Australian Muslims, Jews and Christians are to hold a joint appeal this week to raise funds for victims of the Asian tsunami disaster (AAP)
- The tourists still come - only now they want to help as aid workers | Incredibly, just eight days after the disaster that shocked the world, tourists are coming back to the stricken areas of south Asia. But now they come on a mission. They are the new generation of travellers turned aid workers (The Independent, London)
- Even at charity used to aiding, it's a scramble | At the headquarters of Catholic Relief Services here, the situation reports keep coming in: shelters housing 125,000 people have opened in India. Sri Lanka is getting $1 million worth of cooking kits, fuel cans and soap. In Indonesia, the first supplies should reach the battered coast by the weekend. (New York Times)
- Religious groups offer a hand | Prayers and promises of supplies and cold hard cash are in the works across Colorado's religious landscape this weekend as victims half a world away begin their recovery from a devastating tsunami (The Denver Post)
- Northwest team's relief effort mired in the mundane at outset | The Northwest Medical Teams volunteers, anxious to begin treating victims of the tsunami that killed tens of thousands along this country's coast, instead spent a frustrating Sunday buying cartloads of groceries, searching for cell phones and trying to exchange dollars for rupees, only to find banks closed (The Oregonian)
- Be kind, but be cautious when giving to tsunami victims | Established charities with tsunami funds are probably legitimate. But philanthropic watchdog groups warn against giving to charities that have tsunami in their names because they're not likely to be established charities (Asheville Citizen-Times, N.C.)
- On other side of the world, little to do but offer prayers | In normal times, there might be no evident link between a wooden cabin in the snowbound forests of Sweden and the sunstruck beaches of Southeast Asia. But these are not normal times, and now there is a strand of pain that binds the pine-clad home of Solveig Uhlander to a beach in Thailand where her son, grandson and daughter-in-law have simply disappeared. (New York Times)
- Faithful pray for tsunami victims | Across state, somber observances marked (The Boston Globe)
- Prayers replace parties to mark 2004's end | Even for those far from Asian and African shores where the giant waves killed more than 120,000, the disaster was too overwhelming for a carefree leap into 2005 (Associated Press)
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