Major catastrophes inevitably stimulate conversations about major matters. Where is God when tsunamis hit and bury entire villages, killing thousands? Where is God when pilots intentionally decimate buildings with their own airplanes and rip mothers from their own children? Where is God when violent earthquakes crush bodies and infrastructures beyond their breaking points? Such tragedies launch transcendent questions.
Why would a loving God allow unthinkable horror? Is He impotent? Do great calamities grant greater evidence of greatest ineptitude?
In the midst of human suffering, the shaking of human compassion bursts off the Richter scale. Motivated to a release a $100 million response following the Haitian earthquake this week, President Barack Obama stated, “we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share.” Many have readily caught the message, as people act with swiftness and an essentially invincible outpouring of resources to meet needs of the orphaned and wounded. What can we do to help our fellow brothers and sisters? Such responses launch other transcendent questions.
Why do we care? Why do we act with moral compulsion to aid those fellow humans who survive the destruction?
Tragically answers to these earthy yet ultimate questions all too often find their graves beneath a heap of Western and Christian sound bites. Less than two days after Haitian earth writhed recklessly, with uncensored eloquence a syndicated talk show host found this Haitian earthquake almost unthinkable. Why? Because it occurred so close to American soil. After all, he claimed, such tragedies happen in other parts of the world, not here in America. He then swiftly changed the subject to the NBC controversy over Conan and Leno. In a single breath, the Haitian horror shared the stage with entertainer’s egos and monologues; with sleight of cognitive hand, he relegated reckoning with ultimate realities to equal standing with entertainment squabbles. Such Western smugness will likely go both unnoticed and unquestioned. But such analysis betrays the inability of an unbelieving world, with its smorgasbord epistemology and with its relegating “the God option” to one among many plausible solutions, to address such questions adequately.
This God is not optional, and He alone possesses satisfying answers to these questions. Yet, it is certain Christian leaders who themselves bury the Church in irrelevance. Almost without fail, in times of major crisis some evangelical leaders provide foolhardy fodder for the media Piranhas, when they render their analysis of a cataclysmic event by direct association to a people’s historic, moral, or tactical failure. Somehow articulating blame will ease the pain. Preying on the empty carbohydrates of thoughtless evangelical rhetoric, the media aid the populace in concluding that the Church and the Church’s Christ are simply buffoons. While some blame the media for their bias, it is professing Christians’ saltless profession of faith that preserves the taste of irrelevance on the parched lips of a weary world.
Superficiality has never been a successful tactic for advancing the Gospel, as the airing of our presumptuous interpretations of God’s purposes in the midst of calamity actually produces greater calamity. First, such empty discourse fails biblical compassion. Compassion, as the Good Samaritan typifies, is constituted by sacrificial action, not superficial analysis. Perhaps the Samaritan could have remarked, “This poor soul. Surely he wasn’t educated sufficiently to inform him of the dangers of this road. Or perhaps he was just careless.” He didn’t say that. He didn’t try to figure out cause, education, or moral culpability. In fact, he gave no scrutiny; instead he gave his time, his money, and his possessions. Even when words of analysis are merely sprinkled among timely words of compassion, shallow critique always produces the deepest impact. Dissatisfying, nauseously inopportune rhetoric etches most deeply into the soul of the hearer.
Second, and perhaps most tragically, Lazy-boy analysis exposes a superficial view of God. Is the Creator God, the Almighty One who superintends all things, reduced to our futile speculations about why He acts and why He allows certain catastrophes? Do evangelicals, or anyone else for that matter, have the right or ability to draw specific lines of conclusion about the mind and purposes of God in His providential activities?
We dare not do so. And such action by the Church raises its own set of piercing questions. Who do we think we are? Who do we really think God is?
In times like the Haitian crisis, evangelical versions of God actually further marginalize the Church. This intellectual, moral, and social ineptitude, birthed by our anemic views of the Almighty, effectively eclipses from the eyes of the world the very God we claim to love. Whomever we claim to worship is certainly not the same self-existent God who is in the heavens and does all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3).
In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus instructs His disciples on the single thoughtful response to unthinkable tragedies –those executed by man and those occurring by seeming serendipity. To paraphrase, “Do not ask what others have done to deserve a particular calamity. Turn to the God who spared you from its terminal blow.” Calamity should turn us God-ward; real crisis must produce real repentance. The God who superintends the calamity is the God who has spared us, and our very survival for another day provides grounds for faith in the God of heaven. We simply cannot know why God allows particular disasters when and where He allows them. We must at all times resist the temptation to try and figure Him out.
When we seek idolatrous relief by making sense of calamity, our actions are neither doxological nor compassionate. Those directly affected by catastrophe do not need our attempted analysis; they need our tangible love. Those around us do not need our arrogant assertions about the reasons for the calamity; they need relentless reminders that each moment of life is for their worship, directing them to the God who judges and this same God who in Christ saves from judgment. They need no repetition of Western, evangelical empty speak; they need gentle yet direct rejoinders to worship the God of heaven who does as He pleases.
Real tragedy makes us really empty. The transcendent, all-knowing, all-wise, all-just, and all-gracious God is the only filling answer. No cultural, evangelical or philosophical substitute can stand. This Haitian crisis, as do the hordes of other crises around the world, points us only God-ward. This real horror drives us first to the real God who calls us to Christ-like compassion. It then asks us to speak boldly, gently, lovingly, and truthfully of the true God, and not to reduce the God of heaven to our woefully inadequate, truncating, and idolatrous constructions. It asks of us to turn our own minds and hearts to Him in repentance and to exhort others to do the same. As Peter himself put it, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
There truly is nowhere else to turn.