God and natural disasters

WHILE sterling efforts to provide relief and assistance from the physical impact of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston are in progress, faith communities are also trying to provide metaphysical or spiritual support to those traumatised by enduring the most devastation they may have experienced in their lives.

People have responded in different ways. An elderly man standing, with his wife, next to their destroyed home, offers a prayer of thanks that they still have their lives. Another person sits next to a similarly devastated home and cries, “Why God, why?”

At the Methodist Church’s secretariat devotion on Monday morning, our preacher was Reverend Dr Cliff Bird, who is regional co-ordinator, Pacific Programs for the Uniting Church in Australia’s international mission agency, “Uniting World”. He reflected on the same text used the day before from the revised common lectionary: a passage from the Gospel according to St Luke, Chapter 13, verses 1-5.

Mr Bird, who is a distinguished Pacific theologian, Minister of the United Church in the Solomon Islands and has a background in economics, shared how it is a very natural human response to seek answers and explanations in situations like we have gone through very recently.

“Natural disasters and human tragedies almost always lead to deep and ultimate questions of faith. “Questions such as: Why is this happening to me? What have I done to deserve this?

“Why my child? Why my son? Why my daughter? Why my wife or husband?

“Where is God? Why has God allowed this to happen to me?

“If God is love why did my son, daughter, etc., die? If God is so powerful why did he not stop this weather system from wrecking destruction, loss and death to my family and community?

“In one way or other, God is always brought into the picture as people look for answers.”

He said people attempted to arrive at explanations which were almost always spiritual and faith-related.

“Some say that events such as natural disasters are ways and means through which God alerts those who commit serious sin and evil to repent and turn back to God. Some say such events are ways through which God judges and/or punishes the sin and evil committed by people. Some say that God deliberately allows such events to test, challenge and strengthen people’s faith.

“Let me say quite openly that on theological and ethical grounds I do not share such explanations.

“There seem to be common agreement to the view that some kind of good usually result from situations and experiences of pain and suffering and destruction. However, this is a conclusion that we arrived at only after the pain, suffering, loss and destruction have passed and we look back and reflect, not before. “Such a view does not make the suffering, pain, destruction or death good in itself and of itself. When we hear warnings of cyclones, we do not say normally say, ‘Let us wait for the cyclone and see what God has to teach us’. Or when we hear tsunami warnings we do not actively prepare to see what challenges God has for us.

“I am pretty sure that when we heard of the warnings about Winston, none of us here said, ‘Let us wait and see what God is going to teach us through Tropical Cyclone Winston’. No! When we heard such warnings, we acted, prepared and took precautionary measures to stay alive and safe as much as we were able.

Immediately after the cyclone all of our attention is on our immediate family members, and then on helping those who have been affected badly. It is only after the cyclone is long gone that we look back and see where we have gone wrong or what we should have done or not done. Hopefully, as a result we become wiser and more alert and prepared, but these are points or lessons we arrive at after the cyclone, or any other calamity.”

Mr Bird said it was unfortunate many today, including teachers and preachers of the gospel, often resorted too quickly to spiritualistic explanations linking natural calamities and the resultant loss and destruction with divine rebuke and punishment, or as coming from God thus causing fear and confusion.

He gave the following examples to illustrate:

* In 2007 when a tsunami hit the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, their then PM went on air and said God had a message and Solomon Islanders needed to listen and turn away from their sinful ways;

* When a tsunami hit Samoa in 2009, many Samoans said God was punishing people who were doing business on Sundays instead of going to church;

* When TC Tomas hit Fiji in 2010, many here said God was sending a wake-up call for the people of Fiji; and

* He heard in a sermon Tropical Cyclone Winston veered away from Suva because of the fervent prayers of the people living in Suva. This troubled him and sad thoughts flooded his mind.

What about the fervent prayers of those in the areas of Fiji which were struck so badly? What about the fervent prayers of those who died and their families? Why would or should God turn the cyclone away from Suva and send it to the parts that were completely destroyed?

He affirmed tragedies such as the destruction and death caused by Severe TC Winston called for demonstration of compassion, loving kindness and generosity. These are not occasions for judgment and condemnation.

In outlining his theological perspective of natural disasters, Mr Bird suggests natural occurrences such as cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis and all the pain, destruction and loss that result should not be attributed to God or acts of God. God given human freedom is similar to the freedom God gives nature to operate according to its laws. Moreover, God does not and will not interfere with freedom given to human choices and the law of nature.

“We cannot say that God sent the aedes mosquito to bite us and infect us with dengue. By nature mosquitoes bite.

“We cannot say that God made the coconut to fall on a child and killed him. The law of gravity made the coconut fall and human error put the child in harm’s way.

“We cannot say that God sent the tsunami to hit the Western Province in Solomon Islands in 2007 to punish the people who sinned, or the tsunami to Samoa in 2009 to rebuke and punish Samoans who conducted business on Sundays instead of going to church. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes which are themselves caused by the geologic movements and contact of the great tectonic plates.

“Just as human freedom of choice has both beneficial and harmful consequences so creation’s freedom has both beneficial and harmful effects.”

Climatologists who predicted correctly Severe TC Winston was going to not only return to Fiji from Tonga but as a more destructive system, based their predictions in the movements of air and the conditions which make such movements form depressions and cyclones.

“We cannot say that God sent the Tropical Cyclone Winston back to Fiji to teach, rebuke or punish people, or purposely to test our faith in him. It is part and parcel of the freedom of nature that Tropical Cyclone Winston moved freely and erratically in the way that it did.”

However, Mr Bird points out human actions and interference on the planet, especially since the seventeenth century, have altered these natural processes so much and have contributed to the changes and difficult-to-predict climatic and weather systems of today.

“For instance, we engage in large-scale extractive logging and mining practices that destroy land surfaces and forests which contribute to altering local weather patterns. We create industries and burn fossil fuels that pollute the earth, especially the atmosphere, which cause global warming and climate change. Scientists in our region tell us that harsh and chaotic climatic and weather conditions that now occur frequently with increasing intensity in the region are results of climate change.

“In situations such as we are going through we must be careful to not make worse the pain, suffering, destruction and loss that many of our own people already experience. Instead we must stand in solidarity with them, and exercise compassion and hospitality and extend hands of grace.

“We need, indeed we must, reassure all our people who have been affected badly by Severe TC Winston it was not God who sent the calamity upon them to rebuke and punish them because of their sin and evil, or because they did not pray fervently enough. Severe TC Winston happened within the freedom God has given to creation.”

Read full text of Mr Bird’s sermon on either the Methodist Church’s website: www.methodistfiji.org or its Facebook page.

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of this newspaper or the Methodist Church in Fiji. He can be contacted on padrejames@gmail.com.

More Stories