In times of tragedy, people often blame God, or turn to God and strengthen their faith. Francis Gunn, OFM, provides his thoughts on where God can be found in tragedies such as the recent earthquake in Haiti. This reflection is reprinted with permission from the Jan. 31 parish bulletin of St. Mary Church, Pompton Lakes, N.J.
Like many of us, I have been profoundly disturbed by the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the scope of the loss of life and the suffering it has caused. Who could not be deeply saddened that something like this could take place in a nation where people are already suffering so terribly and where their ability to cope is practically non-existent.
I have thought and prayed long and hard about this, and I even found myself going to a place in my thoughts where I do not often go. Yes, I have asked myself, “How could God allow such a thing to happen to these poor people, a people who have such great faith in God and so little more than that in life?” Like many people, this event has caused something of an aftershock in my faith.
There are some for whom the answer is simple — there is no God and this is the proof. What benevolent being who pretends to love and care for his people could in the worst scenario inflict this suffering, or in the better scenario allow this suffering to happen?
Others, a few notable people like Pat Robertson, believe that this is God’s punishment on a people who had previously turned to evil instead of God. I find his statements to be cruel, theologically warped and patently unenlightened and un-Christian. Statements like this are likely to harm peoples’ faith in Christ and certainly do not help.
God & Natural Disasters
What God’s role is when it comes to natural disasters remains a mystery. Still, I would like to tell you what I believe.
I do not believe that God looks down on this earth and makes decisions about where earthquakes, hurricanes and floods will take place. Nor do I believe that God directly intervenes in preventing natural disasters based on some arbitrary desire to protect some people and punish or teach a lesson to others. This was a belief in Old Testament times and is even implied in the sacred scriptures, but there are very few enlightened people of faith who would preach or teach that God operates in this manner today.
Since the days of Noah, we know that the earth can be a dangerous place and history tells us that some places are more dangerous than others. Depending on where you live, you are more or less vulnerable to the force we call Mother Nature, who is no respecter of persons. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us that the “sun rises on the bad and the good and the rain falls on the just and the unjust” (Mt. 5:45).
If you look at this logically, you will see that most of the mechanisms of injury and death have been constructed by humans and not by God. If you build a building of any height and construct it poorly in a place where an earthquake can happen, you must realize that it is possible for the building to fall down or burn down, even with people in it. If you board an aircraft with 200 plus people on it, you must realize it is possible, though very unlikely, that it can fall from the sky.
If you settle along the banks of a river or close to the shore, it is possible that everything you own and you, too, can perish in a flood, mudslide or a hurricane. We all know of places in our country where this is more likely to occur. If you drive 70 miles an hour on a crowded highway, there is at least the possibility of a tragic accident — they happen every day.
Tribulation & Oppression
While many people vacation in the Caribbean, notice that comparatively few people choose to live there, and in spite of its climate, this is not a place where the world has chosen to locate its centers of finance, commerce, education and technology. Climatologists will tell you it is an unstable climate and becoming more so with the passing of time. The vast majority of Haitians do not choose to live there — they have no choice, and many who have had the means have fled to other countries, including here. I know many Haitian-Americans.
Secondly, Haitians have had a disastrous history of oppression and exploitation by outsiders and by their own people. The history of this nation is filled with injustice and punishment by much wealthier nations that directly prevented any real progress. Exploitation by multi-national corporations, the need to pay off debt and a desperate attempt to fend off life-threatening poverty caused the Haitians to strip the island of their trees and sell the wood and by-products. This has caused erosion of the soil and left a once lush and fertile nation a wasteland. Continuous political instability, again sometimes the result of outside interference, has made it next to impossible for Haiti to progress. And, finally, there has long been a small class of politicians and power brokers in Haiti who have been content to run the country in a way that assured their own prosperity at the expense of the masses for whom they cared very little.
I agree that if there was anywhere in the world God needed to intervene to prevent a natural disaster, it would be Haiti. But I do not believe that this is how God acts in this world. I also believe that the tremendous suffering of the Haitian people throughout their history and to this very day is largely caused by the greed, racial hatred and selfishness of human beings. It is not God, but mankind, that has rendered Haiti a nation that cannot care for its own people, especially after a disaster.
Human Suffering & Healing
While God does not inflict human suffering for the sake of doing so, I fully believe that God seeks to comfort and heal his people in time of tragedy and he seeks to do that through us. Even before the earthquake, there have been many fine and faith-filled people who live in or travel to Haiti and have done tremendous work. There are many faith communities here in the United States that have adopted sister communities in Haiti, assisting the people there in every way. And now an unprecedented relief effort is taking place and, hopefully, will continue. God’s hand is guiding every hand trying to uncover the debris beneath which someone has fallen. God’s healing is taking place everywhere people are being treated for their injuries, and despite the logistical challenges, supplies are finally reaching where they are most needed — all this delivered by good people doing the work of God.
It is too simple to blame God when mechanisms created by humans fail us, whether they are buildings, governments or the cumulative evil of those who within and outside Haiti have advanced themselves with complete disregard for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.
When I was pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Upper Manhattan, we had a significant population of parishioners from Haiti. They were joyful, hard-working, family-oriented people and they had tremendous faith. Cynical people might say, of course, they had faith and nothing else. But I can assure you the Haitian people do not turn to God because they have nowhere else to turn — they turn to God in good times as well as in bad.
Faith in Jesus Christ is woven into the fabric of their being. We had a French/Creole liturgy every week at Holy Name and you should see the energy and joy their faith creates. Even in the midst of this terrible tragedy we see them coming together in prayer, worship and singing because many people in Haiti will not abandon their faith in God and will not accept that God has abandoned them.
Prosperity & Faith
I have often wondered, as Americans, what if we could trade some of our prosperity for some of their faith?
I do not believe God causes tragedies to teach us lessons or remind us of our priorities. But I have witnessed enough trauma in my years to know that a disaster can teach us and challenge us in powerful ways.
In Luke 4:18, Jesus stands up in the synagogue and boldly states that the “Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me” to fulfill God’s promises to:
· Bring glad tidings to the poor
· Proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind
· Let the oppressed go free
· Proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord
With every breath, he took and in every fiber of his being, Jesus embodied these promises. Jesus was, and is, the healer; Jesus was, and is, the liberator.
We are disciples of Jesus Christ whose power and influence reach to most corners of the world. We are called to bring healing, help and hope to the places where it is needed most, especially to the most vulnerable of our fellow members of the Body of Christ. We, too, have the Spirit of the Lord upon us, and we have been anointed to embody the mission of Christ in our lives and in our world.
This is our destiny; this is what we are called to do. The greatest tragedy of all would be for us to settle for anything less.
— Fr. Francis ministers at St. Mary Church in Pompton Lakes.