Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti and Human Suffering

On the day after Christmas five years and a few weeks ago, Indonesia was struck by a massive tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of human beings lost their lives, killed by the onslaught of an unstoppable tidal surge. It was a time of immense tragedy and human suffering. In coming to terms with this event, many folks of a religious persuasion offered up reasons that God might inflict such suffering on humankind. Among some sections of Christianity, stories were told of churches remaining unharmed. That the vast majority of those who lost their lives were God was annoyed at their lack of Christian faith. In the conservative Islamic world, the spin was both different and exactly the same. Indonesia was being punished for being insufficiently Muslim, allowing the infidels to drink and wear bikinis and spend lots of money in beachside resorts to sustain the local economy.

Today, the news comes from Haiti that a sizable earthquake has devastated that poverty-stricken nation. Back when I was a kid, the little evangelical free church my family attended in London used to regularly provide supplies to Haitian communities. We wrote letters to Haitian kids. Things were hard there thirty years ago, and they haven't improved. It is the Bangladesh of the Northern Hemisphere. The reports coming in this morning are spotty, but the likelihood is that there are many, many thousands dead. Slipshod construction and the crowding that comes from endemic poverty makes a temblor unusually devastating. Wretchedly undeveloped infrastructure and incompetent, corrupt government make it even worse. It is going to be bad.

Over the next week or so, the eyes of our nation will be turned to that broken state. Until some juicy celebrity scandal reclaims our undivided attention, that is. During this week, I do not doubt that somewhere, someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth will decide that God is somehow responsible for this event. Perhaps Haitians were not praying hard enough. Or they weren't the "right sort of Christian." Or they were immoral. Maybe someone will decide that the practice of vodun is to blame. There has to be a reason!

We can't help ourselves. We want to believe that faith somehow gets us excused from suffering, even though our faith teaches no such thing. We want to believe that just praying hard enough will protect us from disaster and keep us fat and happy and rolling in material blessings, even though our faith shows us nothing of the sort. Our desire to come up with a theological reason for the bad things that happen has nothing to do with our Maker, and everything to do with our own egocentrism.

But the reality of existence is that we are small and easily broken, and that death comes eventually to us all. Faith does not change that reality. What it does, though, is help us respond to that reality. What a faithful response needs to be has nothing to do with explanations or justifications. That sort of speculation is actively counterproductive.

Instead, Christians need to respond with caring. We need to be providing evidence of the love that lies at the heart of our faith. That will come in the form of material aid, in doctors and medicine and food and blankets and rebuilding supplies. It will come through the presence of aid workers who give comfort.

It is that caring that matters, that work that matters, that effort to bring about good in the face of the reality of our smallness and mortality that matters.