Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, reportedly pointedout that the tsunami “could well test people’s faith in God.” This theme was picked up by an interesting article in an online BBC Magazine, which represented the views of a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim and an Atheist, (why not a Jewish viewpoint, however?) “coming to terms with events in SE Asia.”
Appropriately enough, in our supposedly postmodern, pluralistic age, the final and probably most balanced comment made upon the article was by a pagan, urging people of all faiths and beliefs to continue in them, as well as in the strength of the human spirit. Compelling though this argument is, however, the tsunami tragedy almost inevitably forces faith into a “position.”
Distinctions in an age of pluralism
The Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim viewpoints in the above article were notably what could be termed fatalistic: accepting, with little evidence of any moral struggle, the tragedy and death of so many thousands people. For the Muslim, the event is inevitably the will of Allah who “knows best.” For the Hindu and Buddhist, death is apparently little more than an interruption in the cycle of karma. The atheist typically (disappointingly) takes opportunity to shun religion and prayer and people who take refuge in it, in comparison with practical acts that will help survivors. This seems to me to indicate either the person or the set of beliefs least comfortable with pluralism and peaceful co- existence between people of differing religious beliefs.
In fact, there is ample evidence that, for many, faith and prayer provides essential, strong support alongside involvement in practical work. The particular Christian response, in this article, is I think, one that is representative of many within the Christian community: a call to focus upon a compassionate and practical response, as evidence of our faith. I think this is an entirely reasonable response and likely to fuel a great deal of good work in SE Asia, in the next few days, months and years. Christians are historically good at that and societies, such as Britain, with a culture which deep down reflects Christian morality, will likely continue to be at the forefront of such efforts.
I imagine it will be harder for people whose whole culture is dominated by a religious outlook that is ultimately fatalistic about the death and the disaster itself to be motivated in the same way. However, let us not judge ahead of time. Given that Indonesia is one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, we might expect to see a considerable response from the world Islamic community. This will be an opportunity for skeptics to observe the Muslim response to something less divisive than either Osama Bin Laden, the United States or Israel and the Palestinians.
A theology of tragedy
For Christians, particularly those concerned with finding a new way ahead for expressing our faith in the third millennium, the Asia tragedy inevitably pushes towards adopting a theological position. Our own compassionate response is undoubtedly an echo of God’s response to the sufferers of this tragedy. But what about the question lurking in the back of peoples minds – and perhaps being asked of Christians as they return to work after the Holiday that celebrates the incarnation of the Creator in the form of a baby child? Some will have already come to a conclusion that this is judgement in some form or other. God’s wrath upon the world, possibly specifically upon the idolatrous populations of SE Asia. This is particularly likely to be more popular amongst the pentecostal and charismatic end of the Christian spectrum. What do we think about this? How will we answer?
The populist view of God’s wrath or judgement is perhaps best surmised by the “lightning bolt,” the reaper of judgement aimed with deadly accuracy at transgressors. Believe it or not, I recently read a testimony about a family, in Guatemala, who died in just this way, having been generously housed by a Christian ministry – the only people among the whole community who were willing to help this wretched family – they responded by complaining bitterly about their lot and were then, apparently struck dead by lightning. The “fear of God” reputedly fell upon the entire community that witnessed this event.
The New Testament reports a not dissimilar event in the apparently God-ordained death of a couple named Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5). How does this inform our view of God? Why don’t the Osama Bin Laden’s of this world receive this treatment?
First of all, I think that these two stories actually inform us about incidences which happen within the clear context of a committed Christian community. Discipline, the Scripture teaches us, is the sign of God’s love. There is a long Christian tradition of allowing sickness, trouble, suffering and even death to be harbingers of God’s discipline, leading us to greater holiness and faith, “without which no-one will see the Lord.” However, it is a big and unhelpful leap to go from such incidences or understanding to trying to grasp the role of God in the awesome and profound tragedy of something like the Asian tsunami. Even the incidences within the gospels where Jesus taught people about repentance with respect to a tower which fell upon people, is still about the interpretation of such events within the context of a believing, religious community of God’s people.
I think we must look much harder and deeper into this tragedy than that. Just as Moses was forced to turn aside and look into the “burning bush” in order to hear God speak, we too must turn aside and look deeply into this tragic event, to hear what the Spirit is saying to us. I believe it is possible to hear a deep resonance with the very gospel message itself. The text which inspires this view is the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly chapters one and eight, which both touch upon the relevant issue of the creation.
In the first thrust of his monumental epistle, Paul speaks about the wrath of God being “revealed from heaven.” within the Good News, which is able to “powerfully bring salvation to everyone who keeps on trusting.” He continues to explain that this wrath is revealed because of the suppression of “the truth… which is plain to them… since the creation of the universe.” Before investigating the implications of this, let us turn to one of the summits of Paul’s epistle, (specifically Romans 8.18-31) wherein he speaks again of the creation, “made subject to frustration” but, also “given a reliable hope that it too would be set free from its bondage to decay… (to) enjoy the freedom accompanying the glory that God’s children will have.” It is this thought that inspires Paul’s famous inspiration: “I don’t think the sufferings we are going through now are even worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us in the future.”
A renewal of creation
What though is this “glory to be revealed”? Is it the hope of dying to awake in a blissful heaven: to live eternally there, performing unceasing acts of worship, in some ethereal location? No. The glory revealed by the Christian scripture is the glory of a completely renewed creation. A creation released from its bondage to death and decay. And this is the Good News which we, like Paul, should not be ashamed to proclaim at a time like this.
This present creation is bound. Death, destruction, tragedy, suffering, loss of life is inevitable. Usually it will have a sense of randomness, chaos to it, which is unexplainable. But it will not be forever. And while we await this ultimate renewal we can work towards a temporal, “little-by-little,” one by one, community by community renewal, because the Kingdom of God is willing to break into the communities of men and bring renewal and restoration – a taste of the glory to come – to individuals, communities, societies, nations and cultures; to reorientate human beings to the Creator and to the creation, that we may, as we were originally intended to be, in harmony with it.
Turning from idols to the living God is a part of this in-breaking of the kingdom of God and of Truth. It is the Creator who gives life and is worthy of worship. Yes, life is taken away again by death, but there will be a resurrection, a release from death. Death does not have the last word. For this reason, we should not be ashamed to continue, like Paul, holding out the word of life to people, even those of other religions, as they seek to understand the truth about the creation themselves.
The good news is that creation will be released from forces which presently allow it to unleash such destruction upon itself and its inhabitants. In fact, it innately “cries out” to be released. And the only way that can happen is through the turning of the hearts of men and women and children to the Living God. For this reality every heart cries out, even though it be suppressed or denied: the whole creation, every person, every creature, is “groaning as with the pains of childbirth.”
A groaning of the Spirit
Those who have been reconciled to the Father of creation, who have received the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly, with groans too deep for words, our inner being groaning before God, crying out for creation to be released from its bondage to death. That is what many of us are feeling at a time like this when enormous tragedy is thrust before us: the intercession of the Spirit within us, the groaning of our inner being in sympathy with creation, including all people who do not know the Truth of the the Good News of the Creator and the Creation.
Scripture seems to warn us that many such tragedies may await us before the resurrection and renewal of creation. There will be much groaning, much interceding of the Spirit within us to come. We may need to become much more used to it than we are presently. But in it all, our commitment should be to the Good News: it is not something to be ashamed of at this time. The Creator has planned for a release from this present age in which tsunamis and earthquakes, famines and false prophets assail humanity.
When death is no more
So, if you are asked: “Was the tsunami an act of judgement? Was it the wrath of God, a vindictive act of divine retribution? A specific punishment upon the idolatry of south-east Asia?” the answer, I believe you should give, is No. It was not. But the wrath of God is revealed by it, in the sense that it reveals a creation in bondage to death and destruction. A bondage which God has answered in the Person of his Son, who reveals the way to the renewal of creation: through suffering. The Son has already ushered in the first fruits of a new creation. A new creation which will one day fully come, when wrath will be no more. Destruction will be no more. Tsunamis and earthquakes will be no more. Death will be no more.