A journal of academic theology

March 2005 editorial

Before the closing days of 2004, I venture to estimate that only a small group of world inhabitants knew the meaning and correct pronunciation of the Japanese term “tsunami” (from tsu, harbor; and nami, wave). Yet, overnight, following the horrendous earthquake of December 26, the term became a household word conjuring up dread and fear. In the depths of the Indian Ocean, two tectonic plates long in frictional interaction, finally resulted in a seismic shift of enormous power displacing trillions of tons of water in a few seconds. Immediately, this unleashed towers of force eastwards and westwards toward the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, as well as the Maldives, Myanmar, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Tanzania. Some twelve South East Asian countries and even parts of Eastern Africa were ravaged by this deadly displacement of sea. The death toll will always rely on guess work. At the time of writing it has been estimated that some 290,000 died within a matter of hours. Included in that number of victims were European visitors on holidays along the famed beaches, especially tourists from Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In addition to the dead, well over five million people became homeless and prey to epidemics and starvation. Countless children became orphans in an instant, some even potential targets of trading by unscrupulous traffickers in human life.

Local survivors were quick to bury the dead and to respond to the needs of the injured and those in shock. Among the helpers, in countries that historically have had only a small Christian population, were Christian missionaries whose international connections facilitated quick responses. Likewise, world leaders at a distance, as the enormity of the catastrophe became clearer, pledged money and technical assistance– personnel, food, and medical supplies. Some governments seemed to be responding in a shamefully stingy manner (given the enormity of their gross national product, and their expenditures on frivolous celebrations). Some of the most generous benefactors were private citizens whose wealth was legendary. Still directors of relief agencies were cautiously encouraged because they recognized that in the past large amounts of promised aid (such as finances pledged after the Bam earthquake in Iran in December 2003) only a fraction thereof ever arrived.

The tragedy naturally stirred a global push to set up a warning network for the Indian Ocean (such as already exists in the Pacific). The proposal won wide endorsement and an injection of funding $8 million at a U.N. conference on natural disasters that closed in Kobe, Japan, was linked to vows that never again would humanity be unprepared before such a calamity.

In the wake of such devastation, believers and unbelievers alike posed probing questions such as: “Why did God permit such a disaster?” or: “Is the world not subject to pure chaos theory?” Television and radio commentators, columnists, and journalists interviewed spokespersons from various communities of faith: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Evangelical Christian, and others in search of some kind of an explanation.

What is depressing is the number of religious leaders, including Catholics, who saw the tsunami as divine punishment for sin. Innocent and guilty parties had to suffer as a result of sin, especially the commercialization of sex in tourist centers. Father Joseph Lionel, chancellor of the Indian Tanjore Catholic Diocese in a letter to ZENIT, considered the calamity as a result of corporate sin in the world. “Perhaps we can also view matters not so much as God punishing those victims specifically, as the fact that when sin builds in the world, it puts the world out of order. … It causes an actual darkness that can physically–and geologically–manifest. … Events come almost as a release of that dark tension. God allows it. The good suffer with the evil. There are victim souls and always have been. … Perhaps they serve as victim souls to warn the entire world of the global darkness or perhaps they are the victims of evil that opened the door to disaster that caused the region to be susceptible.”

Other more benign explanations appealed to the “law of the cross” which sees the possibility of good emerging from an evil event, just as the crucifixion of Jesus allowed for an outpouring of love and worship with salvific achievements.

The God that we worship, in the words of Fr. Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory, respects cause and effect, and is reliable enough for us to be able to understand his universe with confidence and some comfort.

For the cynical French philosopher Voltaire, faced with the shocking tragedy of some 40,000 persons killed in Lisbon on November 1, 1755, either by earthquake or its subsequent tsunami–many fled the city in boats heading unwittingly into the oncoming tidal wave–the great earthquake provided incontrovertible proof that the tout est bien doctrine of believers was nonsense. All thinking people, he was convinced and expressed in Candide, would no longer look for a safe life in this world under the guidance of a benign and concerned deity who would reward the virtuous.

The meaning of suffering, sudden death, and material destruction remains shrouded in mystery, yet for those who believe that life is transformed, not taken away, some glimmer of meaningfulness perdures.