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Joe Paprocki Answers:
with Fr. Rick Malloy, S.J. and Mike Hayes
Of the many explanations offered in the wake of natural disasters such as the recent one in Haiti, surely one of the most troubling was televangelist Pat Robertson’s claim that the Haitian people made a pact with the devil to rid them of their French occupiers in the 19th century and thereby incurred God’s wrath. In other words, “they got what they deserved.”
Does God take on a role in these tragedies? Where do we find God in all of this? Certainly not in Robertson’s ugly comments.
The true and living God is in our prayerful and passionate reflections on such tragedies, reflections that reveal a God of love, not an insane deity capriciously smiting the innocent.
The truth is we have to let go of an inadequate image of God. Too many people hold, uncritically, an image of a Magic God. This is the God of the Lottery Ticket. “O God, let me win the millions…”
We don’t have a “Magic God,” a God who makes suffering disappear. We have to look for a God who enters into and transforms suffering, a God who responds to suffering, a God whose response to suffering reveals itself in the actions of generosity and solidarity of those who live in relationship with this God who loves us.
When we look for God in this tragedy we have no further place to look than the faith of the Haitian people — a religious people, to be sure — to give us a glimpse of where God truly can be found. After 11 days, a man named Wismond Exantus was pulled from the rubble, surviving on small snacks and drinks from the hotel’s gift shop that collapsed all around him. When a large group of Haitian people heard about the possibility that someone might still be alive beneath the rocks they gathered somehow, still hopeful, despite all that they had been through.
Would any of us have that same kind of faith?
This is also the faith of the people we see in Scripture. The religious battle, in matters of tragedy, is not between a vengeful God and his faithless creatures; rather, it is between faith and hopelessness. While it is true that Scripture cites examples of God’s response to sin being characterized as wrath, it is also true that often God is also persuaded to relent from unleashing His wrath, as when Moses interceded for the Jewish people after they idolized a golden calf (Exodus 32: 1-14). Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s wrath and mercy always go hand in hand, with expressions of love, mercy and forgiveness far surpassing those of anger. Despite the popular notion that the God of the Old Testament is an angry God, His own people – Israel – continually characterize God as “slow to anger.” More importantly, Scripture reveals to us that whenever God’s people turn away from their sins, God is quick to show mercy. God is always trying to set the world right, out of love for us, though we never really seem to get it all right anyway.
Hopelessness is the place where the evil one hopes to lead us when disaster strikes and our sins take hold of us. And yet, God stays faithful to Israel, even when they disobey him. Israel in turn, returns to faithful practice, despite their faith being tested by exile and slavery. In the book of Job, Job stays faithful to God, refusing to believe that God would smite him for nothing. This sinless man believed and his glimmer of hope in God’s faithfulness is enough to triumph.
Acts of God?
It is ironic that natural disasters are often referred to as “acts of God.” It is true that, in the wake of natural disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, many people will come face to face with their own human frailty and God’s mercy, and will indeed grow closer to Him. However, the real “acts of God” are the works of mercy being performed by God’s people in the aftermath of the tragedy in Haiti: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, burying the dead, comforting the mourning, consoling the doubting, and so on. Without these works of mercy, which are performed by humans but derive from God, many victims of this or any natural disaster might easily (and unfortunately) conclude that they are the victims of God’s wrath.
But still, we wonder why God doesn’t come and save those in harm’s way? In order to cogently hold a faith interpretation of evil and suffering, we have to change our thinking about God. We have to let go of this “Magic God” and instead embrace the God who suffers with us, responds to and thus transforms all suffering. We don’t have a God who promises us a life without suffering. We have a God who answered Job’s questioning about suffering with the challenge, “Where were you when I fashioned the world?” We have a world like the world described by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “For the creation waits… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-23).
When we start to believe that God doesn’t care, that God doesn’t want what’s best for us, or that God will not be there for us… that’s all it takes for evil to gain a foothold. If we stop believing that God loves us unconditionally and suffers with us when tragedy befalls us, then we’re on the freefall to hopelessness — which is hell, the very absence of God.
The imperfect world we live in is always trying to be set right by God. Finally in the person of Jesus, God comes to us Himself to take all of His own wrath upon Himself, on the cross, so that all might be saved. Death and destruction reaches its apex on the cross of Calvary and once Jesus defeats those dark forces then death can no longer have power over us. God may not end suffering, which always tries to rear it’s ugly head into the world, but God can redeem all that we take on in our unfortunate human tragedies.
That same cross, that same Jesus, suffers in the midst of destruction with the Haitian people today and redeems all that is lost by raising them all to a new and glorified life.
God provides unending mercy in the perfect sacrifice of the cross, where God takes all the sin and evilness in the world upon Himself, and instead of raging against the world God takes evil head-on and defeats it by loving the world enough to die for it.
And because of God’s great love for us, not his hatred of us, we are called to respond out of that same love — that we might turn the world around with that same love that transcends tragedy.
A deeper question
And therein lies a deeper question: Why haven’t we as a human race responded — better and earlier — to the conditions that have helped produced all this suffering in Haiti? Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks reflected on how a same-magnitude quake hit San Francisco back in the 1990s and less than 100 people died. That city has been built to withstand quakes. Haiti hasn’t been built to handle a bad storm, let alone this.
Instead of blaming God for all those who died, we should consider our own responsibility as a human family for allowing such impoverished conditions to persist in places where quakes can cause such massive devastation. We are so ready to blame God, and so unwilling/unable to recognize our own collusion with evil — or refusal to ameliorate a situation we can make better.
We know that bad things happen in this world and that they all too often happen to good people. Although we simply do not fully understand the nature of suffering, we gain nothing by explaining away natural disasters as examples of God’s wrath against sinful people. What God wants from us at times like this is not judgment, but compassion.
The photo gallery shows the true acts of God in this tragedy. Click any image to open the viewer: